Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 21A

TEXT: Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Back in 2011, I led a small group study of a book by Rob Bell, entitled Love Wins. You may be familiar with Rob Bell from the many other books he’s written, or from his appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, or from his podcast, or from the series of NOOMA videos which were very popular a few years back.

Anyway, Love Wins is—as it says on the cover—a book about heaven and hell. And there’s been a lot of controversy generated by what Rob Bell wrote in there about hell. Many Christians, it seems, really do not like it when Bell says things like: “I have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages.” 1

I want to say to Rob Bell that, honestly, I have a hard time believing that, too!

Personally, I’d rather talk about heaven. Now, I realize that heaven—even if it’s a more pleasant topic of conversation—can be a dicey subject, too. I mean, it invites questions like: Where is heaven, exactly? Will everybody be there? Is it filled with clouds, angels, and harps? And is it really as boring as some of us secretly fear?

But none of these are questions I want to take up today. I want to focus on something else Rob Bell says in his book. Listen to this: “Jesus invites us, in this life, in this broken, beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now. He insisted over and over that God’s peace, joy, and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are.” 2

Wow! Did you hear that? The life of heaven can be experienced here and now. God’s peace, joy, and love are available to us, here and now.

And really, that’s kind of like what Paul is saying in our epistle reading for today, when he tells the Philippians that God is at work in them, enabling them “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Paul wants to wake them up—and wake us up—to the fact that heaven exists here and now, and we can experience it today, right now, this very moment.

Now, Paul doesn’t actually use the word “heaven.” Instead, he talks about salvation—and he does it in a way that has made Protestant Christians nervous for over 500 years.

Listen to what he says in verse 12: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Work out your own salvation? And this is Paul speaking? Paul, the “by-grace-you-are-saved-and-not-by-works” apostle? What on earth can this mean?

Well … relax. Paul is not backtracking on his assertion that we are justified by grace through faith. No. It’s just that he operates with a far more expansive notion of salvation than most of us do.

You see, the “salvation” that Paul is speaking about here—the salvation we are to “work out”—is not about the particular, private destiny of any individual person. Rather, the apostle is thinking about our corporate life—our life together as members of Christ’s body.

Paul has already (in 2:1-4) described the quality of this life in terms of mutual love and affection, sharing in the Spirit, unity, humility, and putting others first—all of which, taken together, paints a picture of what the Church should be like. Here is real “quality of life”—and it is meant to be a public life, a public witness.

In the chapter preceding this one, Paul urges the Philippians to let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel. His point was (and is) that Christians should behave so that, when outsiders look at the Church, they will see a public demonstration of what salvation means (see 1:27-29).

In other words—as Paul asserts in chapter three of this letter—Christians are supposed to “shine as lights in the world” (3:15).

That’s what Paul means here when he talks about “salvation”—he means a life lived now; lived in the church—lived in the community of atonement and reconciliation. And “working out our salvation” is therefore nothing less or more than living as if the promises of the gospel are true; living, that is, the way Christ lived. What does that look like? Well, let’s go back to the beginning of today’s passage.

Paul writes that because—a much better translation than “if”—because there is encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy in our life as Christians, we should act that way, not seeking first our own good, but looking out for others while trusting our fates and our lives to God.

And then Paul gives us the perfect example of such selfless and self-emptying love: Jesus. Actually, it’s more than just an example; first and foremost, it’s a promise.

This, Paul says, is just how much Jesus loves you—he wasn’t content to sit in heaven and luxuriate in the privilege or power that comes from being divine. Instead, he left all that behind and took on our lot and our life, experiencing all that we experience (and then some). Why? So that we could see the breadth and depth and height of God’s love for us.

Paul’s hope is that, once we have experienced the boundless love of God, we might in turn be able to regard others in the same way—not as objects to be exploited, but as persons to be treasured; not as opponents competing for scarce resources, but as brothers and sisters deserving of our unconditional regard and support.

And here is where I see a connection between Rob Bell and the apostle Paul. I think both of them are saying that—once we’ve received this good news—we are set free to love and care for one another right now. This is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

To quote Rob Bell once again, “eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God.” 3

It’s about us living a new kind of life—a life that Jesus gives us, a life that is radically different from anything we’ve known before. According to Paul, Jesus’ cross and resurrection together formed the pivot point of history, the fulcrum with which God moved the destiny of the whole universe. Nothing is the same for Paul once he has encountered the crucified and risen One—and nothing should be the same for us, either.

To put it another way, because we live in the grace of God right now, this very moment is the hour of salvation. “Heaven” and  “salvation” are not future realities standing at a distance from us. No. They are right here, right in front of us. “Heaven” and  “salvation” are present-tense realities waiting to be embraced and lived out—right here, right now.

So what does it look like to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? It means going about our everyday tasks and duties with the conviction that the gospel is true: believing that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, and that God’s promised future is bigger and better than either the past we’ve created or the future we deserve. And because the gospel is true, we are free to relate to others in the way that Jesus did.

That should be awe-inspiring! That’s how I understand the reference to “fear and trembling”—I think it’s about awe, and respect, and wonder. We can do heaven’s work. We can be Christ for others.

All of this means, of course, that opportunities abound for working out our salvation. From selling that used car at a fair price to emptying bedpans at the nursing home to befriending the kid whom others bully or voting in the next election, we are granted—each and every day—countless opportunities to serve others as Christ has served us.

It may be at home or work, at school or through our volunteer activities, but wherever we have “the mind of Christ” as we go about our lives, we are most surely working out—and witnessing to—our salvation. And we are doing it with the awe and respect this vision of heaven deserves.

This understanding of working out our salvation, of practicing the presence of Jesus, is all about bringing heaven down to earth. It’s about understanding that our salvation is right there in front of us, just waiting to be embraced and lived.

And this, my friends, is real life. It’s not a TV show or a movie; it’s not virtual reality; it is God’s action in human flesh. It invades our world. It draws us into the saving work of God. It makes us participants instead of spectators. It transforms us—all of us together—into “the body of Christ.” And we become his arms and legs, his hands and feet, his eyes and ears.

We “work out our own salvation” by doing the work of salvation, whenever and wherever it needs doing. That’s what it means to be the Church. It’s an adventure we signed up for when we decided to follow Jesus. And, you know what? I think we’re the luckiest people on the face of the earth!

Thanks be to God. Amen.


1 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), p. 70.

2 Ibid., p. 62.

3 Ibid., p. 59.


Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 20A

TEXT: Matthew 20:1-16

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:10-16)

“Welcome to Acme Photo Church Directory Service. Reconnect with your community. Create New and Lasting Memories. We are booking photography now! Dates are limited and are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

Do congregations still produce “pictorial church directories”? You know what I mean, right? They used to be really popular. They were kind of combination telephone directories and yearbooks for a given community of faith, with everybody’s photograph and contact information printed in glossy magazine format, for all the world to see. The publishing company would make its money by having congregants sit for portraits and then trying to sell them a photo package.

Personally, I always thought it was sort of a sketchy enterprise, with the local church acting as a shill. But in the end, everybody who wanted one (or in some cases, only those who sat for portraits) got a copy of the finished product. It actually was a very useful tool if you were new to the congregation and wanted help connecting faces with names. There were usually also photographs commemorating events in the life of the community: special services, church-choir-through-the-years pictures, a “rogues’ gallery” of former ministers … that sort of thing.

I remember how, once upon a time, the congregation I was pastoring undertook a directory project in preparation for the 60th anniversary of its founding. In honour of this landmark occasion, we asked people to send us photographs taken around the church over the past six decades. And boy, did we get them! Several pages of the directory were devoted to these historical snapshots—and it was quite the trip down memory lane.

Those who’d been around the place for a long time greatly appreciated these commemorative pages. On them were many faces that told precious stories: faces of friends long gone, faces of children now grown to adulthood, faces that had changed considerably over the years. And some who had arrived on the scene more recently (like me) looked at those snapshots, and recognized a face, and declared: “Wow! I can’t believe so-and-so has been here that long!

It was kinda cool, actually. Because we did still have a few charter members in our midst, as well as numerous others—whether “official” members or not—who’d been part of our church family for three or four or five decades.

If we gave out long-service awards, there would’ve been dozens of people walking around with stickpins or badges or … I dunno … maybe gold watches! (Actually, we never had the budget for that.)

Yeah … there really aren’t many “perks” that come with long-term church membership, are there? I wonder if there should be. What do you think?

Should those who have been members longer have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the church council, or the pastor? The right to censor the Sunday sermon so nobody gets offended? Exclusive access to the kitchen refrigerator? Should they get complimentary tickets to the turkey supper? Maybe there could be a head table …

Of course these are ridiculous ideas.

Or are they?

Consider the story Jesus told in today’s gospel reading. Can’t we understand the discontent of the longer-serving labourers? They saw their treatment as unfair—and they felt justifiably outraged. At least, they thought they were justified.

Don’t you feel a bit of sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands laboured harder and longer … yet were paid the same amount as those who showed up at the end of the day!

We know something about this, don’t we? Most of us can identify with the disgruntled workers in Jesus’ parable.

Those of you who’ve been parents may recall devoting countless hours of time and energy to coaching youth sports leagues or leading scout troops, or helping with choir fundraisers … all to support the children of other able parents … parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.

Or maybe you know what it feels like to be one of a handful—just a small handful—of conscientious folks who always pitch in to help with community activities … like coffee time, or Sunday School, or groundskeeping, or facility maintenance … or church suppers …

Or perhaps you’re the oldest child in your family, and you grew up feeling resentful because more was expected of you than of your sisters or brothers. How many first-borns, I wonder, complain that their parents let younger siblings have more liberty—more freedom, more privileges—than they had at the same age?

It seems to me that one of the first things we learn in life is to distinguish between what seems fair and what seems painfully unfair. And yet—as we hear this parable about the vineyard workers—it appears that our Lord did not regard fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about those things. Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth did not seem overly concerned about labour/management relations … or about who got to what place first.

In the story we hear him tell today, Jesus does what he does best: he turns our ideas of correctness upside-down. He challenges our religious assumptions, offering instead a radical understanding of God, and of our relationship with God.

Jesus wants us to see beyond viewing events as being simply unfair or fair. He wants us to glimpse the utter limitless generosity of our heavenly Employer. He wants us to understand that—in the eyes of God—our worth is not measured by how much money we earn or how productive we are.

Jesus wants us to know that each one of us is a person of infinite worth—not because of anything we have done or can do—but because of God’s boundless love for us. Some people call that “grace.”

Jesus tells us that—in the face of our limited, worldly perspectives about what is fair and what is unfair—God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by very different standards.

Someone has observed that the parables of Jesus are like vivid dreams—they are so vivid that they actually wake us up. And then …

Then we find ourselves face-to-face with the Kingdom of God. Then we are presented with a new understanding of ourselves. We are sifted, and sorted, and rearranged by the story we’ve heard. Instead of seeking an explanation for the parable, we suddenly understand that the parable explains us!

The discontented labourers of Matthew 20 are, after all, not that different from us. Like us, they expect equal pay for equal work. However—as the landowner points out—the contracted amounts were honoured. No injustice was done.

The only real charge that could be made against him is that he was generous to those who laboured little. He was generous enough to pay everyone—everyone who worked at all—a full day’s wage.

Now, maybe you think he was a terrible businessman; but—through his generosity—every person who came to work got enough money to pay for a meal or two. After that workday was finished, none of the labourers went hungry. So the issue here is not the wage—and not the contract—but rather, the employer’s generosity.

Historically, this parable has been interpreted around the themes of human jealousy, God’s generosity, and the danger of taking for granted God’s grace and salvation.

Let’s explore those themes, briefly.

Most often, I think, our jealousy of one another is based either in fear of unfair treatment, or in our own insecurity—our fear that we may not quite measure up. Jealousy causes us to see others as objects rather than as persons—as rivals, instead of neighbours. It makes a distinction between “them” and “us.”

Jealous fears drive wedges between friends. Jealousy can destroy even the deepest bonds of affection. Certainly, it made the offended workers oblivious to the landowner’s generosity. Envy is based on the notion of scarcity—of limited resources—and it easily blinds us to the real needs of others. Yet nothing could be further away from God’s grace and love. God’s grace is boundless, and his love is unlimited.

How can we begrudge God’s generosity? This parable shames our jealousy—our grudging of others’ gifts and good fortune. In God’s household, all the family members are unique. All the children are special. And all are gathered into one company!

When we attempt to cast someone out of our circle, we are claiming a superior position to which we are not entitled. As an anonymous poem puts it:

Has God deserted Heaven, and left it up to you

to judge if this or that is right, and what each one should do?

I think God’s still in business, and knows when to wield the rod,

so when you’re judging others, remember … you’re not God!”

Before the Almighty, we all stand in our neediness. We have each been wounded by life, and it is the generosity of God’s grace which provides for us. As someone has said: “God pays his servants neither by time nor by piecework, but by grace.”

Just like the fieldworkers in Jesus’ parable, we are challenged to come and labour on … even when the pay-off seems unequal, even when the “greater portion”—the bigger and better reward, which we think we deserve—does not come to us.

To be sure, there are times when it looks like some are being rewarded lavishly—even when their sacrifices and losses seem tiny compared to ours. At such times, we need to remember the contract; do our work with diligence; and give thanks to God.

Our work is a reminder of God’s graciousness and generosity in calling us into his Kingdom. Thank God for providing the opportunity for us to be in the vineyard at all. And thank God for the work we have been given to do—even if we are labouring in the heat of the day.


Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 19A

“One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies. But not before they have been hanged.” ― Heinrich Heine

“Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.” — Jesus

TEXT: Matthew 18:21-35

So the slave fell on his knees before [the king], saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” (Matthew 18:26)

“Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” How many bankers and lenders have heard that? It would be hard to guess—but it is that very plea which, in today’s gospel lesson—illustrates Jesus’ most important teaching about the theme of Christian forgiveness.

In the church, the concept of forgiveness seems to pop up a lot. And most of us know why. Forgiveness is one of the most universally recognized—yet least frequently practiced—mandates of those who call themselves disciples of Christ. Jesus calls us to forgive, and forgive, and forgive again. Yet in our reasonably honest moments, we all know how almost impossibly difficult that can be.

When people hurt us, if there is one thing that does not come naturally, it is forgiveness. This is why Peter’s utterance is one of the most timeless of all biblical questions: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” It is our question today as much as it was Peter’s question way back then.

The New Testament sets our lesson within Matthew’s so-called “fourth discourse” of Jesus, comprising Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel. This lesson—like the one for last week—has the community of faith as its context. Perhaps it is a lesson that needs to be heard by the church most of all.

In last Sunday’s gospel (Matt. 18:1-20), Jesus instructed his disciples about what they were to do when one of the members of the church sinned against them. Now Peter—presumably for further clarification—asks his all-important question: “… how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Now, the usual rabbinical teaching recommended a three-time formula: the faithful Jew was expected to forgive a wrongdoer three times—and in exceptional cases—even four times. Peter, in his question to Jesus, goes far beyond that—and so he is showing great liberality in asking if seven times is enough. It’s important to make note of that, because we do not give Peter enough credit for his generosity in proposing seven-fold forgiveness.

Jesus’ response must have shocked not only Peter, but all those who were listening. “Not seven times,” he said, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or, as some translations have it, “seventy times seven.”

What does Jesus mean? All of us know the literalistic approach to such a saying. We think to ourselves, “Let’s see, seventy times seven … Does Jesus mean 490 times we are to forgive?”

No. What Jesus means is that forgiveness in the community of faith should be infinite. Forgiveness should have no limit. In Scripture, the number seven represents perfection. For example, God created the world in seven days—and that represents God’s perfect work of creation. Thus, “seventy times seven” is equal to a perfect number of instances of forgiveness multiplied by seventy—a staggering number of times of forgiveness! What Jesus is trying to suggest, I think, is that forgiveness is not a matter of mathematics, but rather an attitude toward life and those with whom we share it.

To emphasize the importance of this principle, Jesus tells a parable to reinforce and illustrate his teaching about the nature of forgiveness. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”

Now, the first debtor brought before the king owes him an astounding sum. This slave’s debt is 10,000 talents. In Jesus’ day, a “talent” was the equivalent of more than 15 years of wages for a common laborer. This means that it would have taken this man more than several lifetimes to repay the debt. Obviously, he could never repay the debt; “and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” (v. 25)

At this point, the slave begs for more time. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” he says.

Then the king does something amazing. Moved by pity, he forgives the slave his entire debt, and sends him on his way. If the parable had ended there, it would be a wonderful story about God’s boundless compassion and forgiveness. However, an odd thing happens as Jesus continues the parable that—for the moment—looks so happy in its ending.

The first slave—of whom the king has just forgiven a debt larger than King Herod’s whole treasury in Jesus’ time—now comes upon a fellow slave who owes him a mere hundred denarii. He grabs him by the throat and demands immediate payment.

Slave number two begs for mercy in words nearly identical to those that the first slave has just used: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”

The first slave, however, will have none of this. He refuses the second slave’s plea, and has him thrown into prison for the hundred denarii. Now, a denarius was the usual day’s wage for a laborer—so the amount owed was about three months’ wages. It was a significant sum, to be sure—but nothing compared to the debt that had been owed to the king.

Well, the first slave is not only without compassion, but also, it seems, without any common sense—because he demonstrates his cruel selfishness in front of witnesses. And these witnesses—who had no doubt also witnessed the king’s act of mercy—are outraged. Immediately, they go and tell the king, and Jesus brings the parable to its conclusion:

Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. (vv. 32-34)

That would have been a life sentence. Jesus’ final words in today’s passage are chilling: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (v. 35)

One helpful word—among many that we draw from Jesus’ teaching—we find in our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

For Jesus, forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. In last week’s gospel, he outlined our responsibility to hold others accountable; this week, he reminds us of our duty to forgive. Forgiveness of a bountiful kind is the foundation of the community of faith. Believers must practice it, if the community is to remain faithful and intact. The word to the church is a “threefold amen” about the nature of forgiveness.

First, the church is meant to be a place where forgiveness is not only spoken of, but also practiced. We are not to simply talk about forgiveness; we are to forgive.

Second, Jesus reminds us—by his use of the character of the first slave—that God has forgiven us a huge debt. Now, forgiven Christians must not withhold forgiveness for lesser offenses that creep into the fellowship of the church. My guess is that if most of us only remembered how much God had already forgiven us, then it would be a lot easier for us to let go of those nagging resentments that eat away at us.

Third—and this may be the crux of the matter—those who cannot accept God’s forgiveness will not likely be able to forgive others. Make no mistake about it: those who have not received love or charity from God will not be able to share it with others. You cannot give away to others what you have not first received yourself.

One of the truest proverbs of the last few centuries—even though it gets misused too frequently—is the one that tells us: “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” By forgiving others, we participate in the divinity of Christ … and isn’t that what “being his body” is all about?

I’m not saying it’s easy. I know it isn’t easy! In fact, I think that—by our ordinary human capabilities—it is impossible for most of us. But through God’s grace, the impossible becomes possible. So let us pray for the grace to forgive, as we have been forgiven; in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 18A

[Jesus said:] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

—Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)

Once upon a time—years ago now, back when I was in my early 20s—I worked with a fellow who hailed from the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. He had been raised in the Lutheran Church there. Or I guess I should say, in a Lutheran Church there.

As you may know, there is a very large—and very conservative—Lutheran denomination that takes its name from the state of Missouri. But it has other flavours of Lutheranism, too.

Anyway, my friend told me this story about his hometown. He said that, within the radius of a few city blocks in downtown St. Louis, there were no fewer than four different Lutheran churches. And the people in each one were absolutely convinced that the people in all the others were going straight to hell.

“That,” he told me—“that is what really happens when two or three Christians gather together.”

Here’s another story. Probably, you’ve heard it before (I know it’s an old enough joke).

There was this man who had been shipwrecked, and now he was stranded all alone on a desert island. He had been surviving there for years, always hoping some ship would sail close enough to notice him.

Eventually a passing ship did notice him. And the captain sent a few of his crewmen in a small boat to check on the man.

As the rescue party approached the shore, he ran down to the beach to meet them. At last, he was going to be rescued!

Now, as the members of the rescue party greeted the castaway, they noticed that several small buildings had been put up on the island. How odd. So they asked the man: “You’ve been here all alone. And yet you’ve built all these little huts along the shore. How come? Why so many buildings?”

“Well,” the man said, “I wanted to keep busy.”

Pointing to the first hut, he said, “That building there is where I slept.”

Pointing out the others, he told them: “That building over there is where I would spend the day. That building is where I prepared my food. That building is where I went to church.”

Then, pointing to another building, he said, “And that is where I used to go to church.”

That story is funny only because it references a quite unfunny truth. For as long as people have been in the habit of gathering together and calling themselves a “church” they’ve also been habitually frustrated with one another. So much so that they inevitably separate and move on. They break into more and more disparate groups, based on what they think are irreconcilable differences. Kind of like Hollywood marriages. According to one source, there are now—worldwide—about 45,000 distinct Christian denominations. 1

But of course, dissention and disagreement occur not only between denominations, but also within them. We in the so-called “mainline” churches continue to experience this sort of anxiety and divisiveness as we have internal debates about … well, all kinds of things—from climate change and pipeline development to Middle East politics to questions about marriage and inclusiveness and countless other social issues. And even, in some quarters, about the nature of Christ and the reality of God.

Some of us—who hold to a more traditional theology and world-view—wonder at times why we remain in the mainline churches at all (even as some of our less traditional colleagues kind of wish we’d leave).

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Jesus has no illusions about the church, or about Christians’ ability to get along. Our Lord understands the challenges we face as we try to remain connected to one another. He knows the church on earth consists of real people. Real people, of course, come with real differences! And—too often—with concrete opinions that are wedded to harsh and uncompromising attitudes. All of which, of course, leads to alienation. Yet we are supposed to be “one body.”

We sing, “Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love,” but Christian love does not come automatically, and—sometimes—it does not come easily. We also like to sing, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” but we too seldom behave as though we really believe it.

The truth is, the smallest disagreements can boil over and then erupt like a supervolcano. Church fights can be brutal and dirty.

Some of you will know what I’m talking about. In recent years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of people leaving the church. Sometimes, they’re upset about some particular issue, but sometimes … Well, sometimes, they’re just worn down and worn out by the church’s inability to make the gospel real. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “I love your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.”

Probably, all of us understand what he meant. Christians appear to be exquisitely skilled at creating discord and division, and woefully unskilled when it comes to reconciliation and community.

This is why Jesus’ words from today’s gospel are so important. He calls us not to sweep divisive issues aside, but rather, to face them head-on (difficult though that may be). He calls us to build up the community of faith—and he provides us with a methodology for doing that.

First of all, Jesus says, go and see the one with whom you have a conflict. Yeah. That’s right. Go and visit that person. Don’t just send a text message. Make a lunch date. Something face-to-face. And this is not merely a suggestion; really, it is a command—go and see that person.

And while you’re having that sit-down, be cognizant of who it is you’re speaking to. Because this is not just any person! No. This is a brother. This is a sister. This is someone with whom you are meant to be in community, and that close relationship has been disrupted.

Go and see the person. This takes courage. This takes prayer and humility and grace. Go and see the person—but not with your finger pointing! Go and see the person—but leave your righteous indignation at home.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Go in humility and talk things through in private, Jesus says.

This is the hard work of discipleship: going … seeing … speaking … listening … working to repair the damage. This is the calling of faithfulness. And when it works, the results can seem miraculous.

“If the person listens to you,” says Jesus, “you have won them back”—back into the community. Most often, what matters is not correctness, but community. It’s not about who is right—it’s about right relationships. In the Lord’s scheme of things, the whole reason for confrontation is to bring about reconciliation. It’s not about revenge or vindication or winning an argument or proving a point. Remember—Jesus is all about humility and grace and peace.

Of course, Jesus is also a realist. He says: “If you are not listened to, take one or two others and try again, in private. And if that does not work, tell it to the whole church.”

But then … sometimes … if nothing works … if there is no reconciliation … then, Jesus says: “Well, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Now, at first, that sounds like—after sincere efforts to reconcile—you should just walk away. Let them go. Get over it.

But wait. Who did Jesus hang out with? He ate with tax collectors and sinners. And to Gentiles, he showed mercy and grace. To such people, he extended his hand of blessing.

Never is anyone beyond the reach of God’s love. Whatever the problem is—however insurmountable it may appear—once we place it in the Lord’s hands, we have ample reason for hope.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Jesus says. And then he makes another seemingly cryptic remark about “binding and loosing.” Remember that from our gospel lesson the week before last? After Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told him: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Today, we hear him tell all the others the same thing.

“Binding and loosing.” Whatever else that may mean, I think its most important meaning is this: the way we treat each other has profound implications. Whatever we set loose here will be set loose in heaven. Whatever we bind up—or put back together—here on earth will be likewise dealt with in heaven.

Friends, this is simply the logical consequence of being forgiven. Because we have received so great a gift from God, our forgiving one another is a profound extension of that same loving act. It’s just as Dr. Martin Luther King once said:

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power. 2

Here is the core of our Lord’s call to love one another as kin: we are meant to build one another up. Here is why we are to see our actions in this community as harbingers of the heavenly kingdom. We love because God loves—and God’s love reconciles all things.

In his book Thunder From the Mountain, John Stroman tells a story about a Dutch theologian named Henry Kramer. A group of lay Christian leaders came to him in late 1940 and said “Our Jewish neighbors are disappearing from their homes. What must we do?”

Kramer answered, “I cannot tell you what to do. I can tell you who you are. If you know who you are, you will know what to do.” 3

And that was the beginning of the Dutch Resistance movement, which worked to protect Jews and others targeted by the Nazis—and to assist Allied efforts in World War Two.

Jesus calls us to remember who we are. We are a forgiven people, bound to one another as brothers and sisters through the waters of baptism. More than that, we are a transformed people—called to work together in God’s vineyard. That is our challenge.

It is also our blessing.


1 www.gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/research/quick-facts/

2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 38.

3 John Stroman, Thunder From the Mountain: The Ten Commandments Today (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1990), p. 113.


Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 17A

TEXTS: Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21).

“From that time on”? From what time on?

If you’ve been reading my blogs over the past few weeks—and if you can call to memory the gospel lessons you’ve heard about—you’ll have some idea of what’s happening here. But, in case you’ve got a memory like mine … I’d better recap.

Someone has calculated that Jesus travelled over 3,000 miles during his three-year ministry—that’s more than 5,000 kilometres! And by the time we catch up with him today, he’s nearing the home stretch.

Two weeks ago (in Matt. 14:14-33), we heard about Jesus teaching and healing near Capernaum, where he wound up feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. When Mark’s gospel reports this same story, it says that Jesus felt compassion for the people there because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). This was actually a swipe against the religious leaders of Israel—the ones who were supposed to be shepherding the people, but in fact were failing miserably.

The week before that, we found him in the province of Syria, far to the north of Galilee, where he took pity on a Canaanite woman whose daughter was being “tormented by a demon” … whatever that might mean. Jesus heals the girl, and by doing so violates all kinds of rules of propriety, not least because the woman and her daughter are Gentiles. He even commends the mother for her great faith! When they hear of this, the Pharisees and Sadducees will be scandalized.

Returning to his own country, he is confronted by those same religious leaders. By now, they have realized that this Jesus is no fly-by-night religious fanatic who will soon disappear—and they’re getting worried. So they call a kind of showdown:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3).

“No signs!” Jesus says. “Even if I gave you a sign, you wouldn’t recognize it.”

The movement of Jesus’ ministry out of Galilee—and toward his death in Jerusalem—has now begun. Things are beginning to get dangerous for him and his little band of followers. And so, as we heard last week, once they arrive in the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gets serious with them: “Guys, you’ve been around the town. You’ve heard the talk. What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that I am?”

They tell him: “Some say you’re John the Baptist, come back to life. Some say you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

And then Jesus gets really serious with them. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do you say that I am?”

Not surprisingly, Peter is the first to speak. “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah we have been waiting for.”

Jesus is impressed. He tells Peter that it was not merely human reasoning that had given him this insight, but divine revelation.  Then he declares that Peter—or, at least, the faith of Peter—is going to be the foundation stone for the church.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This was a sacred moment. And it must have seemed like a triumphant moment, also.

But it would not last very long. Because—as we heard today—from that time on Jesus began to show them what lay ahead; that in Jerusalem he would suffer and die. He would be tried before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish Supreme Court—which would condemn him and hand him over to the Romans to be executed like a common criminal.

Peter is stunned by this news. He is shocked. He cannot conceive of such a fate befalling the Messiah. So he takes Jesus aside and begins to say to him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. Let’s get hold of those keys you gave me last week and we’ll do some binding and loosing. We’ll fix this.”

Peter means well, but Jesus … Well, Jesus loses it!

“Get behind me, Satan! You are getting in my way, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

So in just six verses of Matthew’s account, Peter has gone from being a foundation stone to being a stumbling block—from the bearer of divine revelation to an instrument of Satan.

Talk about a rooster one minute and a feather duster the next!

Poor Peter. Nothing in his background had prepared him for this. The Messiah would be rejected by the religious leaders in Jerusalem? Israel’s champion would suffer a shameful death? Their great hero was going to lose?

How could that be? The Messiah was expected to inflict suffering and death upon Israel’s enemies, not to suffer and die himself!

It is kind of puzzling, isn’t it?

Well, isn’t it? For 2,000 years, the church has taught that Jesus’ crucifixion was a revelation of his glory. Some have even said that Christ’s cross was his kingly throne. But who can really understand that?

Our idea of being blessed is to have a good job. A nice house. Healthy, intelligent kids. Good return on our investments. A great retirement plan.

Jesus’ concept of blessedness is very different.

“If you try to hold on to control of your life,” he says, “you’ll wind up losing everything. But if you let go of your life—even if you pay the ultimate price for your commitment to me—you will discover real life. Eternal life. What’s the point of conquering the world if getting it kills your soul?”

I feel for Peter, don’t you? I relate to this guy. I think Peter is us! His heart is in the right place, but he has trouble following the plotline. He experiences the tension—and wrestles with the paradoxes—that we all do from time to time.

Like every serious Christian, Peter is caught between faith and doubt, between understanding and confusion, between obedience and disobedience. In his strengths and in his weaknesses, he represents us ordinary Christians who strive to be faithful followers of Jesus … but trip over the cracks in the sidewalk.

We are like Peter, aren’t we? We want the story of faith to go according to our script. We want it to make sense.

But Jesus overturns our tables. He crashes through our religious upbringing. He turns our cultural understandings inside out. He tosses our ambitions and aspirations out the window. Sometimes Jesus scares us as much as he inspires us.

We wish it were different, don’t we? I know I do. I would like a smoother ride. I’d like the way of discipleship to be more fun! More comfortable. More successful. I’d like to edit out the unpleasant parts of the story … especially when they include me as a character.

Ever heard of Ignatius Loyola? He founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuit Order—way back in the 16th century. He is still regarded (and not only by Roman Catholics) as a kind of spiritual master. Ignatius spoke about the need to distinguish between the good and bad spirits which try to influence us.

We want to listen to the voice of a good spirit and reject the advice of an evil one. According to Ignatius, discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will for us.*

That sounds simple enough. Simple, but not always easy, because the bad spirit … Well, the bad spirit can seem so reasonable, so sensible, so in tune with our culture. Very skillfully, the bad spirit uses our fear and our guilt and our prejudices to delude and manipulate us.

That’s the reason why—just like Peter—we can go from certainty to confusion so rapidly. One moment, we see the will of God clearly—only to lose sight of it a moment later. We have to guard against that.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul urges us to live our lives with intention. He says:

“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit … be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:9-12).

These attitudes of the heart do not come to us automatically. Always, there are choices to be made: decisions about how we shall live and how we shall respond to others.

Yes. How we respond to others.

Discipleship is lived out in the midst of community. We are reminded of the call to follow Jesus through our interactions with others who share our journey. With them, we learn servanthood. Because of them, we are challenged to confront our own fears and prejudices. The apostle Peter faced these challenges, too—not always with success. But he persisted. And he did not cut himself off from the fellowship of believers.

That’s why Peter was present for that breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ—the one John recorded at the end of his gospel. And because he was present, he received a new commission—one which Jesus stated three times: “Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

In other words, “Stay in this faithful community and serve my church.”

Perhaps that sounds less prestigious than being “keeper of the keys” … but through this kind of humble servanthood, Peter would perfectly emulate his Lord. And—by doing that—he would discover the meaning of grace.

May it be so for us, also.


* www.ignatianspirituality.com/making-good-decisions/discernment-of-spirits/introduction-to-discernment-of-spirits


Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 16A

TEXT: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:13-15)

Ever had an embarrassing moment? We all have memories of times we’d rather not think about—because, when we remember them, all the anxiety and embarrassment of the moment comes rushing back. Right? You know what I mean. We’ve all had experiences that obliterated our self-confidence or damaged our self-esteem.

It’s called “high school.”

One particular high school embarrassment, when I recall it, still makes me cringe. And it didn’t just happen once, unfortunately. It happened numerous times, and maybe some of you can relate to it, too … unless you grew up to be an accountant. You see, I’m talking about math class. Math was always my worst subject.

There were days in high school mathematics class when the teacher would fire off a question out of the blue, and most of the class was not prepared to answer it. Or, at least, I wasn’t prepared. It seemed to me like the teacher called on me more often than on anyone else—maybe because he knew I would never have the right answer. And the questions were always so bizarre!

I remember one time he set up a problem, saying, “The level of water in a funnel drops at a rate of six feet per minute.”

Yeah. Feet, not metres. It was that long ago.

Anyway … Six feet per minute? That’s one big funnel! Anyway, his question was: “At what rate is the surface area of the water changing when the water is ten feet high?”

Like we should know this! The room grew quiet. I knew that, if no one raised their hand to answer, the teacher would pick someone (probably me). In the silence of it all, my palms grew sweaty, my mouth dried out, and it seemed like I had only two options.

Either I could sit completely motionless, hoping that the teacher might mistake me for a statue and call on a kid in the next row … or … I could look down at my desk, shuffle my papers deliberately, click my pen meaningfully (as if I were somehow in command of the subject matter), and again hope that the teacher would spring the question on someone who looked less “with it” and even dumber than me.

Those were the two options. However, regardless of which one I chose, the teacher usually seemed to pick me! It was horrible. You can’t really fake an answer in math—especially when you know your peers are going to burst into laughter the minute they hear how ridiculously “off” your answer will be.

So why, today, am I reliving the misery of my high school math class? Well, it’s all because of a little exchange that happened between Jesus and his disciples one day. He asked them what they had heard other people saying about him: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Now, to answer this question, all that the disciples had to do was regurgitate what other people had been saying. There is not a lot of controversy or risk involved when you speak using the third person: “Well, some say you are John the Baptist, but others say you are Elijah, and still others speak of you as Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

Now, even if that was the “word on the street,” those comments did not actually reveal much. At best, they were mere snippets of information shared.

So, Jesus altered the question. Evidently, he wanted more than impressions from people eating at the deli down the street. So he changed one word, and repeated the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Can’t you see the red faces on the disciples? Their sweaty palms? Their dry mouths? Jesus’ question must have evoked something like the terror that I knew in high school math class on those days when I didn’t have the answer and the teacher called on me without warning.

That little word “you” can make all the difference in the world when asking a question or giving direction. It implicates a person. And you know, it’s the first word God ever spoke to a human being in Eden. To Adam, God said, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden [except for, of course, that one over there]” (Gen. 2:16). Suddenly, Adam realized he had a stake in creation—and a personal place in the heart of God.

Insert that little word “you”—as in “Who do you say that I am?”—and it’s a bit like the teacher suddenly catching you unaware. One little word can make all the difference in the world. Talking about Jesus as an idea is a far cry from trusting your life to him. Believing in the concept of God does not begin to compare with actually knowing God.

It’s the difference between talking about love and telling someone that you actually love him or her. That’s the kind of difference Jesus seems to be hinting at here. Something in his question—“Who do you say that I am?”—wants to know about the disciples’ love.

How would they respond to their teacher’s unexpected question? Some of them probably tried the “statue option,” hoping that Jesus would mistake them for marble slabs and call on someone else. Others likely stuffed their panic inside, cupping their chins in their hands and looking down as if studious and reflective on the whole situation.

But not Peter. No. Peter was the first to speak up—and, without any equivocation, he said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Something in those words struck Jesus as completely genuine—full of love and personal passion. It wasn’t anything like the textbook responses that the other disciples were thinking up. No, this was Peter through and through—heart and soul, all Peter. It felt to Jesus like Peter was saying directly to him, “I love you, Lord.” And all Jesus could say in reply was, “Blessed are you.”

You know, the Christian Church today is full of panic-stricken believers. Now, when I say “panic-stricken,” I’m thinking about how you feel when you are asked a question to which you really don’t know the answer.

Have you ever had trouble expressing your faith? Ever had any difficulty finding words to say what you believe? Have you ever found that when you finally got those words out, they really didn’t say very much? Didn’t contain any of the passion or insight that is truly from you? It’s possible that you even realized virtually anyone could have said them as well as you (or better).

In other words, they were not distinctive to your life. They sounded more text-bookish than anything else—almost as if you sort-of-believed them … but not quite. As if what you were saying was a nice idea or a holy-sounding concept—but certainly not anything requiring your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Back in the 19th century, a Danish theologian and philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard complained about the “paltriness” that defines too many Christian lives. In a book called Either/Or, he wrote this:

“Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is paltry; for it lacks passion. Men’s thoughts are thin and flimsy … The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry …” *

Kierkegaard lamented the complacency of his fellow Christians. He called them “shopkeeping souls,” people consumed by dull religious duty, rather than fiery passion.

For just a moment, forget about what you are accomplishing in your life or achieving in your vocation. That’s all well and good and important. But the question I want to ask you today is: “Do you love Jesus?”

Are you in love with Jesus? Is there fire in your soul for him? Does your face light up when you speak about him?

Does he really matter to you? Are you just passing time, moving through your days in emotionless fashion? Is your discipleship about nothing more than “getting by”? Or is there more to your faith?

I believe it’s worth asking ourselves these sorts of questions, because I think Jesus would like to know. He wants to know—from you—exactly who you think he is, with respect to the way you are living your life.

There is a word for the “shopkeeping” kind of faith that Kierkegaard observed. There’s a word for the dullness in too many believers’ lives. That word is Laodicean.

Laodicea was a city of the ancient world, in the Roman province of Asia, where Turkey is today. One of the earliest Christian communities was established there, and it was one of the seven churches addressed by name in the Book of Revelation. The words written to the Laodicean church take the form of a message from Christ himself—but they are far from complimentary.

He says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16)

Wow! What a condemnation! It almost sounds like having a Laodicean variety of faith is worse than having no faith at all. We need a vibrant faith—one that’s hungry for God. We need a faith that’s in love with Jesus. Do you know what I mean? I’m talking about a faith that’s made of something besides textbook responses.

We all know there are a lot of people in this world who do not believe in Jesus. And, for some of them, their disinterest and unbelief may be due, in part, to the fact that they consider Jesus irrelevant or maybe even a fraud. But I don’t think that’s the prevailing opinion. More likely, they just see too little passion in those of us who claim to follow Jesus. They see a joylessness, a smugness, a complacency, a dullness.

So, today, ask yourself: If Jesus should call on you when your hand is not raised, and ask you the question, “Who do you say that I am?” … how will you answer him? Are you ready to answer him with your life? Your money? Your decisions? Your kindness? Your humility? Are you ready to display your love rather than just talk about it?

It’s scary, isn’t it? You may start sweating the second you realize that you’re going to have to answer with something more than just words. But take heart! To that same Laodicean church that Jesus threatened to spew out of his mouth, Jesus also said this: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20)

If you feel you don’t know Jesus well enough—if you’re afraid you might be stumped by his question, “Who do you say that I am?”—well, just listen. He’s knocking at the door to your heart, waiting to be let in. He wants to get better acquainted. He wants you to know him. He wants you to be certain of his love for you.

So, open the door! Open your Bible. Open your heart. Spend time—daily—in prayer. Engage with your fellow believers. Ask questions, even if you think they’re dumb. Give answers—even if you’re afraid of being wrong. Put in the time. Make the effort. Wherever you go—to your work, your school, your home—take Jesus along with you. Introduce your friends to him. Ask him for help when you need it. Offer help when others need it—and show them the love Christ has shown you.

Do these things. Do them consistently, and—before you know it—you’ll have your own answer to his question, “Who do you say that I am?”

For the companionship, for the friendship—for the Lordship—of Jesus … thanks be to God.


* Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Alastair Hannay), Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. London: Penguin/Random House UK, 1992. p. 48.


Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15A

TEXT: Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left [Gennesaret] and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not answer her at all. (Matt. 15:21-23a)

Let’s be honest: in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is distressingly unkind. This poor Canaanite woman comes to him seeking help for her daughter, and Jesus … our Jesus … gives her the brush-off! First he tries to ignore her—and, when that doesn’t work, he turns to her and draws the line:

“Look, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You’re not my department! I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. I only have time for my fellow Jews. That’s why I came—to help them. It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.”

Then—right away, just like that—she comes back at him, saying: “Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

And the Son of God, apparently, is gobsmacked. This Canaanite woman sets him back on his heels. No matter how insignificant she is from the Jewish point of view, she is willing to argue with God himself! She will do whatever it takes to obtain healing for her beloved child. And in this way, she assumes her rightful place in the Kingdom. Jesus gives her what she asks for. “Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

So, a happy ending, I guess. But this is an unsettling story, isn’t it? It is disturbing to consider Jesus’ behaviour at the beginning of this passage. Where is our familiar, loving, compassionate Saviour? And as the story progresses, even more unsettling questions get raised.

What happened here?

Did the Canaanite woman change Jesus’ mind?

Did her clever answer open his eyes to her humanity?

Did this encounter alter Jesus’ plans for his own ministry?

My inclination is to answer “yes” to all those questions. Yes, she changed his mind. Yes, she caused him to see her as a fellow human being. Yes, because of the Canaanite woman, Jesus suddenly realized his mission was to all humanity, and not only to the Jews.

And yes, I know the questions that come next: if Jesus was God incarnate—the Word made flesh—how could anything change his mind? How could any mere mortal reveal something new to him?

Well … Simply put, I believe Jesus was fully God—but I believe he was fully human, as well.

And—despite the inherent paradox—being fully human, being human as we are human, implies limitations. When you say, “I’m only human,” you’re pointing to a universal truth about the human condition: real human beings have real limitations. A huge one is death. God is not mortal as we are. God cannot die. But all human beings die—and Jesus died, also. As the apostle Paul put it, “he became obedient unto death—even death upon a cross.” (Philippians 2:8-18)

If God in Christ was so completely human that he could actually die as we die, then surely it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to consider that maybe, just maybe, he was also sometimes confused or unaware or even ignorant about some things. He would have been influenced by his culture, just as we are influenced by ours.

That’s how I explain this passage. But, in fairness, I have to admit that there’s another way of looking at it. According to my colleague Richard Fairchild, my way of interpreting the passage is “nonsense.”

And he’s not just being petulant. On his sermon website,* Fairchild reminds us that “the scriptures are full of passages saying how salvation will proceed from the Jews to the Gentiles—and Jesus was well aware of them.”

He also makes clear the fact that—by this point in Matthew’s gospel—Jesus has already performed at least one miraculous healing for a Gentile: the Centurion in charge at Capernaum, telling his disciples as he did so:

“I say to you many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven …” (Matt. 8:11).

Richard Fairchild’s view is that—from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus had no intention of proclaiming the good news only to the children of Israel. Here’s what he says in his sermon for this day, from that same website:

I think that Jesus was testing the disciples—the disciples who were so eager to send the Canaanite woman away from Jesus and who in fact begged Jesus to send her away … and yes—I think that perhaps Jesus was testing the woman herself. I believe that Jesus was trying to make a point about faith, and about the barriers that people place in the way of salvation—barriers of race, barriers of culture, barriers of sex, barriers of wealth, even barriers of morality and religion. As it says in Isaiah—the prophet that Jesus quotes the most—“Is not the House of the Lord of Israel, the House of God, to be called a House of Prayer for All Nations?”

Fairchild makes some good points here. Truth to tell, most evangelical Bible scholars would agree with him. And I would agree with him and them on this point: the important thing about this story has to do with the outcome. Jesus does heal her daughter.

Whether he was testing her or testing his disciples—or whether he was just having a bad day—Jesus rewards her persistent faith. She believes this Jewish Messiah can help her, and she won’t take “no” for an answer. No matter how difficult it is, no matter how embarrassing it is, she is resolved to plead her case. She pours out her heart. She hides nothing. She asks for what she needs.

Most importantly, she knows where to turn.

How about you?

When the chips are down … when you’ve come to the end of your rope, the end of your courage, the end of your endurance … Do you know where to turn? And do you have the sort of courage this woman had, to persist in asking for help?

As I started working on this blog, I remembered that nine years ago this month, on August 11, 2014, the American actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead at his home in Paradise Cay, California. It was death by suicide. He was 63.

That news shook me up when I first heard it. Despite his well-publicized battles with depression and addiction, this beloved performer (from all that the public could see) had seemed to overcome his personal demons. To be sure, he had—after some 20 years of sobriety—relapsed in 2003, but it certainly appeared that he had gotten his life and his career on track again.

With three films still unreleased at the time of his death, he seemed to be as busy as ever professionally. And the depth of his love for his family—especially for his three children—has never been questioned by anyone. More than that, Williams had this persona—this manic, joyful, upbeat persona—that, on the surface at least, betrayed no hint of melancholy.

Yet, in private, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Williams struggled with despair, anxiety, and increasing paranoia. Apparently, he could see no way forward for himself.

Peeking from behind Patch Adam’s big red clown nose, a Scriptural truth reveals itself: The state of a person’s heart may not be visible to others. Or at least, not obvious.

As the Book of Proverbs says: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10). Our human tendency is to hide our pains and sorrows and sins. Because someone else may take advantage of our weaknesses and use them to manipulate us … or simply to hurt us … we shield our innermost parts. Instinctively, we want to protect ourselves. Above all else, we try to disguise our vulnerabilities. And that is why wounds in need of healing are too seldom revealed. They remain buried in the recesses of our overprotected souls.

In the secret places of our hearts, we harbour the bitterness caused by years of neglect and abuse and sorrow. And, desperately, we try to ignore these feelings while in public we smile bravely. As the Book of Proverbs also says: “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief” (Prov. 14:13).

The fact of the matter is this: the wounds we hide can only be healed if we expose them. And if we do not pour them out—to God and to trusted friends—they can metastasize like a spiritual cancer gnawing away at our souls.

Apparently, something like this was true for Robin Williams. While making us roar with laughter at a father dressing in drag in order to be with his children—and at a professor who misses his own wedding while experimenting with flying rubber—deep within, the man who brought us “Mork from Ork” hid an aching heart. Many people we meet from day to day do the same thing. And the more skillfully they hide their anguish, the more urgently they need someone to tear down their walls; someone who can burst through their defenses with Christlike compassion.

Certainly, it is wise to protect ourselves from as much injury and evil as we can in this fallen world. Yet it is even wiser to pour out our hearts and our hurts to Jesus—and to those who will offer his comfort. Come to me,” he said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

At Jesus’ feet, we can remove our clown noses. We can take off our masks and make our true feelings known to him. We can say to him: “I’m angry,” “I’m scared,” “I hate the way I’m being treated,” “I’m tired of being alone,” or, “I can’t take any more of this!”

As One who was mistreated above all others, who beheld more pain than anyone, who faced the most terrible fear in the universe—and who forgave those who betrayed and murdered him—Jesus can bear whatever emotions we throw at him. He will not break our trust. He will not exploit our pain. But he will, with sympathy and with empathy, bind up our deepest wounds.

Jesus offers the joy of his love, and he wants us to abide in it. He will rescue and heal us, if only we will pour out our hearts as the Canaanite woman emptied hers. If only we trust in him. If only we will persevere in asking him, we also will hear him say: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28).

May God grant us holy courage … and spirited persistence. Amen.


* http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/a-or20sm.php


Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 14A

TEXTS: Ephesians 3:14-21 and Matthew 14:14-33

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled … he made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. (Matthew 14:19b-20a, 22-25)


Near the end of the last century—way back in 1995—the British writer Sara Maitland lamented the quality of contemporary Christian witness, saying: “The real sadness is not that we cause people to laugh at the idea of God and alienate them from the source of their very selves … but that we deprive ourselves of revelation, of knowledge of God.” 1

That quote is found about a quarter of the way through a book called A Big-Enough God, which (as you might guess) Maitland wrote to underscore the point that most people—including most professing Christians—have a conception of God that is, simply put, not big enough.

In this, she echoes something that another Brit—J.B. Phillips—wrote much earlier in the last century.

Those of you who are of my vintage may remember J.B. Phillips as the translator of one of the most celebrated post-war modern-English versions of the New Testament. But back in 1952, he wrote a book with the provocative title Your God is Too Small. He said: “The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs.” 2

Phillips’ observation was as true in his decade as Maitland’s was in hers. And, honestly, I don’t think the situation today is much different—on either side of the Atlantic.

Many of us do have a god who is too small. Without knowing it, we have substituted a feeble and feckless tutelary for the great and gracious God revealed in the Bible. The substitute deity we have fashioned is limited, and narrow, and—above all—tame. He does nothing surprising or amazing—and he is confined by our own understandings and preconceptions.

This god is stingy with mercy and has only enough love for “our kind of people”—whether that means our nation, or our tribe, or our race or family or social class … or denomination. This is a god of our own making. He is predictable. He is safe. And he is boring.

Trouble is, this kind of god hardly elicits praise. We may offer him rote and mumbled prayers—but this is entirely one-way communication. We may pray at this god of our own making … but it never occurs to us to listen for his response. And why would we? He could not possibly have anything interesting to say. We don’t expect this tiny god to restore or redeem or transform anyone or anything.

From him, the best we can hope for is sympathy. And those who proclaim him can do nothing more than offer banally humanistic advice and politically correct admonitions about caring for Mother Earth. Such preaching is about coping with the way things are, rather than about “preparing the way of the Lord.”

Apparently, many of us—even if we aren’t out-and-out atheists—conceive of God as being remote, passive, and—at most—innocuously voyeuristic. In other words, completely detached from our world and from our human experience. This far-away god never comes close enough to nourish and sustain us; he enlightens us about how to fend for and feed ourselves, perhaps … but that’s it. Far from being the bread of life for our hungry hearts, this god is like a report from the agriculture department about anticipated wheat production.

Like I said, this kind of god cannot restore, redeem, or transform anyone or anything.

Contrast this insipid picture of God with the portrait of Jesus painted for us by the gospel writers.

In today’s reading, Matthew has recorded two of Jesus’ great miracles, back-to-back. We first hear the story of a hillside full of people, who have come to Jesus because they are hungry for many things. Jesus’ disciples try to figure out how to feed this gigantic crowd—and they conclude that they simply don’t have the resources to accomplish it.

You know, the disciples really aren’t very quick on the uptake. You’d think that, by now, they would have clued in. Since when does Jesus do things the way anyone expects? And here again is yet one more example.

With five loaves of bread and two fish, we are told that Jesus fed 5,000 people that afternoon, with plenty left over—12 baskets full!

Not a small thing. And certainly not what you would expect from a small god.

Anyhow, in the evening of that very same day—with the grass still flattened from where all those people had been sitting—the disciples are out on the lake in a boat, and Jesus shows up … once again, in an unexpected way. When John’s gospel reports this same story (John 16:15-21), it tells us they were three or four miles from shore, huddled together in the middle of a storm—the dead of night all around them—when Jesus appears. Walking upon the water, first he calms the storm—and then he calms the disciples.

Again, not a small thing. Not a small god. And certainly not a god that we would have invented—because he is so surprising!

More importantly, though, this God whom we see revealed in Jesus—this God who became one of us—seeks not to merely surprise us or entertain us … but to transform us.

“Feeding the 5,000” and “walking on water”—what links these two stories together is that Jesus does something totally unexpected, and it forever changes the lives of those around him.

Nobody on that hillside could have imagined what was going to happen when Jesus got hold of that bread and those fish. Not one of the disciples expected Jesus to stroll up beside their boat and greet them in the middle of a storm.

Jesus is constantly doing things that no one expects. In all four gospels, we find stories about a Messiah who shows up in unexpected places—and in unexpected ways. And he continues doing this. Why does it still surprise us?

This Saviour, born in a manger to a frightened teenager and a humble carpenter … This man, born in our flesh, very God in human form … This King, killed upon a cross, and then resurrected into life …

No one was expecting the Messiah as he came the first time. And I’m sure no one will be expecting him when he comes again. But look—the truth is: he has never really left us! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he has remained with us, doing the unexpected, loving the unexpected, caring for the unexpected … all the time.

Yeah. Our God is good—all the time. Even now! He is very real, and he is still “Emmanuel”—God with us, right here, right now. Not far away. Not distant or removed or uninterested. And this is very good news for us, my friends—because a distant god can’t do one thing about the empty hunger within our souls.

We all live through seasons which demand more of us than we can possibly deliver:

  • Work grinds on, but our energy is long depleted.
  • Needs pile up, but we lack resources to meet them.
  • Our schedules are jammed full, and our hearts are alarmingly, achingly empty.

Maybe that’s how things are for you, right now. You’ve debited your emotional account into near-bankruptcy; you’re way over your limit; you’ve maxed-out your heart and soul.

Most days, we get up in the morning, put on our uniforms of responsibility, our practiced façades of “can-do” optimism, our masks of habit … and we do what we have to do.

To be sure, there’s a kind of grace in our being able to do that; but I can tell you that there are many people—many more than you might imagine—who worry and fret about how much longer they can cope with all the demands, respond to all the pressures, and meet all the expectations they feel weighing down upon them.

A lot of us feel that way, don’t we? We feel hollow. And our hollowness unsettles us. So we stuff it with things and experiences—food, drink, drugs, sex, noise, busy work, money, fantasy—anything that promises temporary relief.

Eventually—and inevitably—the emptiness threatens to consume us. It becomes like a spreading cancer, moving to take over everything that we are. And when it does, a small and distant god cannot possibly help us.

Thankfully, the apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesians remind us that we do not have a small and distant god. The real God—the living God revealed to us in the history of Israel and in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ … this God is magnificent, and mysterious, and mighty. Paul said:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)

The real God is vast beyond our comprehending, beautiful beyond our appreciating, and wonderful beyond our imagining. God encompasses everything: past and present and future; near and far; what we have discovered and what remains obscure. God is above and beyond, among and within, high and holy, close and compassionate. God’s great love should leave us breathless with astonishment!

Paul prayed that we would know what he admitted was beyond knowing: “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love. It includes everyone and everything. It radiates with a redeeming grace which dissolves our shame and guilt. It shines with a dazzling glory that fills every dark corner of our human hearts.

Thankfully, this prayer that Paul offers is not a list of assignments for us to carry out, or expectations to meet, or demands to shoulder. The God who has been made known and real to us in Jesus is not standing over us with a clipboard and a checklist. Nothing in the apostle’s words even hints at a self-help project or a self-improvement regimen.

Paul’s prayer simply invites us to realize how deeply God loves us. It calls us to experience God surrounding us, and encompassing us, and holding us in his loving embrace. And it promises us that God will fill us when we are empty, make us strong when we are weak, and keep us rooted and grounded even when our world feels like a stormy sea.

I invite you to experience this prayer for yourself. Ask God to thrill you again with a sense of wonder. Ask him to fill you with his own life. Ask him to show you all you can comprehend about the wide embrace of divine love. Receive God’s strength. Open yourself to God’s fullness, so that the once-empty places in you may overflow with abundance and glory.

We have a vast, loving, and powerful God whose power is “at work within us” and who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” To that God “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen.


1 Sara Maitland, A Big-Enough God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 48.

2 J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1960), v.

God is Good … All the Time

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 13A

TEXTS: Romans 8:26-34; Matthew 14:13-21

And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. (Matthew 14:20)

Sometimes I feel our thinking in the church is too sophisticated.  Too often, we miss straightforward truths, stated plainly and simply—what some would call the “old time religion.” That’s one reason I appreciate it so much when I hear the “God is good” chant at the start of a worship service; because it expresses a simple truth. When the preacher shouts, “God is good,” the people reply with enthusiasm, saying: “All the time!”

This is a wonderful way to express the truth we know about God’s power to provide for his people—and this is a fundamental truth of what we call “good news.” From today’s gospel lesson, we learn once again that God is God—that God will provide what we need.  We re-learn, in the midst of the Body of Christ, that God will lift up amongst us resources to accomplish his holy and life-giving purposes.  

In Matthew, chapter 14, we encounter people who, having followed Jesus into a desolate rural area, now find themselves hungry. The disciples suggest that Jesus send them away to get something to eat.  But Jesus has something else in mind. Maybe it was his way of saying, “God is good.” But the disciples did not know how to reply, “All the time.” So Jesus told them to feed the hungry people themselves:

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” (Matt. 14:16-18)

He was saying, “You don’t think there is enough for this great multitude, but there is enough—because God will provide.”  

This miracle—where over 5,000 people are fed with five loaves of bread and two fish—is a kind of “acted out” parable. It reveals how God can raise up in the midst of his people just exactly what they need. How? Well, we don’t know how. But we do know why. It’s because God is good—all the time.

This miracle can give us hope and direction—if we can see that everything is possible with God; if we can see that looking to love—the love that comes from God—can be the key to meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes we are too sophisticated to believe in miracles—to believe that God really is good—all the time; that the power of God can, in every instance, provide more than we can hope for or imagine.  Sometimes we know so much we cannot see the truth when Jesus faces us down with the familiar, “You!”

You give them something to eat.”

And yet, the goodness of God assures us that God’s love, moving in us and overflowing from us, can provide what his people need—because God is good, all the time. In every circumstance of life, God’s power works toward lifting up whatever promotes love in that situation.  Wherever there is injustice or pain or grief or hardship or hunger, God is there. Why? Because God is good—all the time.  

As the apostle Paul says so majestically in his Epistle to the Romans: “… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Paul reminds us that in all things God’s abundance will, in the final analysis, be sufficient to meet our needs.  Right here, right now—in the midst of who and what we are—God will provide; because God is good, all the time.

This does not mean, of course, that Christians will be without problems or suffering. No. But it does mean that God will give us the grace and strength to bear the load as we overcome and move through whatever misfortune may befall us.

Ours is not a faith of easy answers and unrealistic solutions. But Jesus entered our human life and died upon the cross for us—and by doing that, he demonstrated something. He showed us that—in whatever we experience, in whatever may trouble us, in whatever distress or threat we feel—we need not despair, because God is in it with us.

God will lift up in our midst exactly what we need to make it through. Why? Because God is good, all the time. And because God calls us to demonstrate goodness—and courage, and compassion, and faith—all the time. And maybe—in that call of God—we find humanity’s only real hope for peace. Just as on that day so long ago, Jesus took the little bit of food his disciples had and multiplied it fantastically, so on this day, I believe, he is asking us to offer him whatever scraps of peace—of goodness—we have. And if we offer it, he will multiply it.

As someone once said: “Peace has to start somewhere.” And given the violent history of the human race—and the conflict that is so pervasive in our society—I think it goes without saying that it has to start small. Looking at how the efforts of governments have failed—from the League of Nations to the United Nations to NATO—it should be clear that the big solutions do not work very well.

Peace, I think, is a grass-roots process. It has to start small. It has to begin with small actions—lots of them—by people like you and me. People who look for places where peace is absent—in their communities, in their schools and workplaces and homes—and who offer in those situations whatever small portions they have of the peace of Christ.

If we do that, our Lord will multiply what we offer.

God is not far away and aloof from us. In his life and death and rising, Jesus shows us that God does not stand outside of life, but is right here with us—beside us—in our broken and troubled and suffering world.  As Paul said to the Romans, “[nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39b)

In whatever crisis or issue we face in life, in whatever trouble may come our way, the power of God’s love will provide us with what we need. From the midst of the Body of Christ, God will lift up the resources to accomplish his loving purposes.



Because God is good, all the time.

All the time, God is good. Amen.


Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 12A

TEXT: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)


The Kingdom of Heaven is like … a raspberry seed that someone planted in his garden. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows up … it takes over your entire yard!

Yeah. I used to have raspberry bushes in my yard—and every year they produced seemingly endless quantities of fruit. They’re not hard to grow. In fact, the real challenge lies in containing the raspberries. And I’m not talking about containing the fruit in jars.

No. I mean keeping the bushes from growing where you don’t want them to grow. That’s the challenge. Because raspberry plants keep popping up everywhere—in the vegetable garden, amongst the flowers, over the other side of the fence … even through cracks in the concrete sidewalk.

You don’t need the wisdom of Solomon in order to cultivate raspberries. Or even a green thumb. I mean, if you’re looking for a foolproof business, I think raspberry farming would be it! Raspberry bushes are incredibly tough.

You don’t even have to bother planting the tiny seeds. You can just cut some branches and stick them in the ground; they will develop roots and grow. They produce an abundant summer harvest, and always seek to enlarge their territory. The only difficult thing is keeping up with their production.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable not about raspberries, but about mustard. But they are kind of similar plants, in a way.

Not that mustard tastes very much like raspberry jam … but raspberries and mustard (at least, the kind of mustard Jesus had in mind) … Well, they have a few things in common. They both have tiny seeds. And they share the same kind of energy.

The people listening to Jesus would have understood that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. We see it in Canada, too. We call it wild mustard. Wild mustard is an invasive weed. Left unchecked, it will entirely take over a field, choking out the other plants. And it will do that before you know it.

Think about that. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that constantly and inevitably (and vigorously) keeps on growing and spreading. Just like raspberry bushes. Or like ivy growing on the outside of an old building. The ivy will climb and spread until it covers the entire wall, taking it over completely.

Now, there’s a visual! And according to Jesus, that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Or at least, that’s how it turns out in the end. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny.

The Kingdom of Heaven starts out small. It’s barely noticeable. But once the Kingdom takes root, it spreads everywhere. You can’t miss it. In fact, you and I are part of that growth—part of that Kingdom—even if nobody recognizes us for what we are. The most important thing, however, is that God knows what we are. Our heavenly Father recognizes us.

We might be small and insignificant today—but tomorrow we’ll be invasive weeds!

Maybe that’s not exactly what Jesus meant. But you get the picture, right? And even if you don’t, Jesus provides another illustration. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman mixes with flour to make huge amounts of dough.

Now, in Jesus’ day, yeast did not come in convenient little packages. “Leaven” was a remnant of dough that was allowed to … well … rot! Or ferment. A fungus from the air—in other words, yeast—would settle on the dough and begin to work. This remnant was then used to leaven the next day’s batch—which it would quickly do, working its way throughout the entire lump of dough.

If you don’t understand what’s going on, it seems like magic, because yeast isn’t just small—it’s microscopic! A single cell.

Mustard seeds and yeast. Two parables about small, insignificant things turning into great big things. But more than that, they are parables about how the Kingdom of Heaven takes over everything around it.

The mustard takes over the field. The yeast takes over the bread. They are barely noticeable to begin with, but—over time—they change everything around them. That, Jesus says, is how the Kingdom of Heaven works.

You know, that should be encouraging to us. Because sometimes it seems like our efforts to bring about God’s Kingdom are not really doing a whole lot of good. If you’ve been active in church life over the years, you surely understand what I mean. You’ve witnessed the struggles that take place inside a congregation. You know what it’s like to yearn to see the fruit of your labours. You realize how wearying discipleship can be. Which is why so many people give up on it.

From time to time, a few of them actually leave the church in frustration. But many more … even if they do not absent themselves from worship, they pretty much abandon discipleship. It’s like they carry Jesus around in their pockets and take him out for an hour or so on Sunday mornings, only to put him back in as soon as they leave the church parking lot.

I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another. We get settled in our daily lives—immersed in work and school and worldly obligations—and we forget about the One we claim to follow. Or maybe we just get overwhelmed by the immensity of following him.

“I’m just one person,” you say. “What difference could I possibly make?”

Or maybe you think, “I’m just part of a tiny little church. We can’t do very much, so why bother?”

Why bother? Well, because God bothers. Then God asks us to bother … usually more than we want to.

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed—but then it turns into a giant tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. And by the way, that’s hyperbole. Jesus knew full well that mustard does not actually grow into a tree. If that happened, it would be a miracle. Or perhaps just a daily occurrence in the Kingdom of Heaven. God can do amazing things with even our tiniest efforts.

Scott Hoezee is a well-known preacher and author. He’s also the Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not long ago—on the seminary’s website—he wrote this:

… as bearers of God’s kingdom, we keep plugging away at activities which may look silly or meaningless to the world but which we believe contain the very seed of a new creation. We keep coming to church and singing our old hymns, reciting our old formulas and creeds. All of us who preach keep cracking open an ancient book called the Bible, looking to find within it truths that are anything but ancient. We keep gathering at sick beds and death beds and whisper our prayers for the Spirit of the resurrection to be with us in life and in death. We keep drizzling water onto squirming infants and popping cubes of white bread into our mouths in the earnest faith that through the Spirit baptism and communion don’t just mean something, they mean everything.

And we keep working for Jesus in this mixed-up, backward world of ours. We quietly carry out our jobs and raise our kids and tend our marriages in the belief that God has designs for all those things and it’s our job to follow them. We keep pointing people to an old rugged cross, having the boldness to suggest that the man who died on that cross is now the Lord of the galaxies.*

Did you hear that, you tired disciples? What you do matters. Not just what you do in church on Sunday morning, but what you do at work, or behind the wheel of your car, or at the grocery checkout, or anyplace else you turn up through the rest of the week—it all matters! More than that, it makes an incredible difference. If Jesus can say that the Kingdom of Heaven takes over this world through little things like mustard seeds and yeast, then the Kingdom of Heaven is surely taking over this world through you, as well! Even your small corner of the world is being transformed because of what God is doing through you. 

Yes, you may struggle. Raspberry bushes are covered with thorns.

Yes, you may feel insignificant.

Yes, it may seem like what you do has little effect.

But in these parables, Jesus tells us different. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming through things that appear unimportant and ineffectual.

So, don’t give up! Keep planting those mustard seeds. Remembering that God sees what is done in secret, keep hiding that yeast in the bread. Continue sowing seeds of kindness and mercy. Keep doing what is just and right, even if you meet opposition. Because—although you may not see the fruit of it—Jesus promises that this is how the Kingdom comes. This is how God’s Kingdom will turn the world upside down.

That, I think, is a promise we all need to hear—and believe. Amen.


* http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel