Friday, January 29, 2010

Such a Little Thing

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree. (Matthew 13.31-32)

Start Small

Jesus refers to mustard seeds on two occasions to illustrate two lessons. The more popular is the second, in which he compares the tiny seed to faith: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17.20) Little wonder why this promise is so popular. It’s outrageously exciting and dramatic. A mustard seed measures about the size of a pinhead. If it only takes that much faith to move our mountains, my goodness, nothing can stand in our way! His earlier mention of a mustard seed is quoted less often, which is a pity, since it involves us more directly and results in something far more amazing and permanent than mountain-moving. In this instance, Jesus isn’t talking about altering the landscape. He’s teaching us how to change the world.

In Matthew 13.31, He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” To get the full gist of what follows, we have to pause and consider what “the kingdom of heaven” means. Jesus’s frequently addresses one of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. We tend to mistake one for the other, when they’re distinctively unique, with each carrying its own implications. The kingdom of God exists, has always existed, and always will. It’s God’s presence with and in us, as Jesus emphatically states in Luke 17.21: “The kingdom of God is within you.” That’s straightforward. The kingdom of heaven is a bit more complicated. It comes when we make God’s presence known. It’s the impact and influence we have so the world more closely resembles the perfection God originally created. Everything we do to restore peace and harmony brings us one step closer to reestablishing the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Now that’s a grandiose concept that many no doubt find laughably optimistic. For idealists who don’t find the concept so far-fetched, there are still practical issues to be resolved, beginning with where to begin. That’s why Jesus calls our attention to the kingdom of heaven with such a little thing—a mustard seed. To spare us from becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, He tells us to start small.

Nurturing Change

Since the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny seed, it not only makes sense for us to start small—but also for us to recognize our role is nurturing (nor forcing) change. And this is a true test of our perspicacity and pride, because the kinds of change Jesus is talking about here start without a great deal of drama and fanfare. We don’t change the world by announcing we will. We change it by knowing where the seeds of change have been sown, watching them closely to see when they break through the soil, and caring watchfully for their shoots. We fiercely protect them to ensure they’re not mowed down or stomped to death. We guard them against forces of nature and human will. And we do our utmost to keep people around us aware change is growing in their presence. They may not be able to see it. They may not like what the change represents. But they need to know it’s underway—and we’re nurturing it—so that when it comes to fruition they’ll be ready for it. Because here’s the basic truth about a mustard seed: it’s tiny, but it’s also hardy and insistent. It grows deep roots and flourishes in harsh conditions, to the point that, as Jesus points out, “When it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matthew 13.32) We are the critical agents behind its growth. We care for the mustard seed—for the kingdom of heaven—in its tender stages so that it will stand tallest among all other endeavors and it will become a tree that remains rooted and grounded for seasons on end.

Change That Lasts

Jesus wraps up this parable with a most intriguing observation. He switches His emphasis from the seed and the tree and us to an entirely different group. He says the seed becomes a tree “so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (v32) So what happens in the ground and on the ground is largely for the benefit of those above the ground—the birds of the air. And this sounds astutely correct. We’re not merely creating change; we’re planting and nurturing the kingdom of heaven. As such, our motives and actions must be free of personal gain or ambition. We must change the world for everyone’s benefit—not merely our own. As we’ve seen over and over, when we get a bright idea about how to make the world better in our sight, we open a Pandora’s box we can never close. Prohibition is a prime example. The movement to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages didn’t stop alcohol consumption. Indeed, it created the perfect climate for organized crime and black-marketeering that have morphed into our present culture of gang violence and drug deals. Changing the world requires knowing what must replace what we remove. Prohibition offered no healthy alternative, which is why a poisonous, deeply rooted culture of crime and substance abuse has grown up around its rotted stump.

When we seek change, our focus should shift from what we want stopped to what we want to get started. Do we want equality? Then we must nurture and practice it. Do we want acceptance? Then we must practice and prove its worth. The kingdom of heaven is change that lasts—it’s work we do for the benefit of generations to come. It’s done without selfish intentions, with no promise of personal glory or recognition. It’s slow and demanding and in many cases, it takes longer to reach fruition than any one gardener’s lifetime. But the change isn’t in the doing or the doers. It’s in the seed. The ability to make sure that seed grows is what’s in each of us.

The kingdom of heaven is all about changing the world. Jesus says when we plant that tiny little "kingdom seed" and nurture it, it will grow into something that lasts and benefits others.

(Next: Forward)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Made Whole

They laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole. (Mark 6.56; KJV)


I’ve resisted writing about Haiti because it felt unnecessary. The stories and pictures of the past two weeks leave nothing to be said. They do call to mind a haunting visual that brings Mark 6 to a close, however. The chapter relates a series of disconnected events early in Jesus’s ministry. With His reputation secure abroad, He returns to Nazareth, where friends and neighbors take offense at His teaching, and He leaves because of their lack of faith. Next, He sends the disciples out to minister, telling them not to linger where they’re not wanted; wherever they’re received, they have great success. Word of Jesus’s exploits reaches Herod, who recently beheaded John the Baptist and worries there might be credibility in rumors Jesus is really John returned from the dead. Meanwhile, the crowds keep growing. Jesus feeds 5,000 with a child’s lunch and tells the disciples to sail ahead while He stays behind to pray. Then He walks across the lake to catch up with their boat. When they dock, people recognize Jesus and bring their sick to Him. Mark ends the chapter with this image: “They laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole.” (Mark 6.56; KJV)

Were this the last frame of a movie and we scanned back through the footage for clues why six unrelated episodes are linked together, we’d find Mark 6 is really about severances. Jesus severs ties with Nazareth after it rejects Him. He’s plainly shaken by the ordeal, because He takes a hiatus, sending the disciples to preach and heal in His stead. Herod deals with a different sort of severance—one not as clean and final as he presumed. Having decapitated John the Baptist, the preacher’s memory clings, clouding the king’s mind with fear. At the same time, the disciples and crowds cling to Jesus. He breaks away once again, yet finds it impossible to be apart from them very long. Though they’ve proven capable on their own, Jesus walks on water to return to them. Which leads to the closing shot of people severed from society by illness and injury clinging to Christ, grabbing at His clothes to be made whole.

No Minor Catastrophes

The humanity—and lack of it—coursing through these big scenes leaves one overwhelmed, affecting us exactly like the photos and video from Port-au-Prince. The scale is enormous, and yet our eyes repeatedly fix on one or two faces, where the emotional drama plays out in epic proportion. We see Jesus’s consternation as his hometown turns on Him. We peer into grateful eyes as the disciples bring healing to hopeless villagers—and we see dark hostility in faces that refuse them. We watch anxiety dance across Herod’s brow and marvel at the generous glow of a little boy holding a lunch basket. We sense the fatigue in Christ’s features, confirming His need for solitude, soon followed by the joy brimming in His smile while He walks out to the ship. Finally, we recognize the desperation in helpless people lining the streets, waiting for Jesus to pass by.

More than anything, what we see reflected in these faces thrust into various crises is there are no minor catastrophes. Unanticipated life-turns exact enormous tolls on us. Rejection, risk, guilt, exhaustion, and sickness change us irrevocably. They dash our hopes. They create new fears. They stretch us and sometimes leave us stranded, grasping for someone to ease our suffering. In the middle of our crises, we ask why God permits such tremendous hardship. Surely Jesus questioned why He found no honor in Nazareth. Yet it’s hard to imagine the experience didn’t color His compassion for countless sick, marginalized people around Him. Nor could He possibly ignore the love and concern of family and friends who placed their wounded and dying at His feet. Christ’s personal catastrophes forged His bond with others who struggled. Their situations differed, but they suffered all the same. Loss of any kind makes every kind of loss easily and deeply felt.

The Reason We Suffer

There is no end of causes for suffering, from foolish neglect to malignant hatred. Identifying the reason we suffer, however, is another thing. When we search for a reason, we inevitably start at one of two places: God or us. Either He wants us to endure pain, or we’ve done something to deserve it. But neither of these applies to Christ’s struggles in Mark 6. There’s no reason for His oldest friends and neighbors to revile Him. God isn’t pleased by it and Jesus hasn’t provoked it. Furthermore, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. John, His cousin and role model, has been executed on a whim. Herod’s paranoia mounts as the clamor around Jesus rises. Now He discovers He’s not welcome or safe in Nazareth.

The reason Jesus suffers is inextricably linked to His purpose. In Luke’s account, we’re told the Nazarenes take offense at the text Jesus uses to explain His ministry: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61.1) To understand the suffering He describes, Jesus must suffer. What He loses in Nazareth gives Him power to make people who reach for Him whole. So it is with us. We suffer loss to heal loss. We face fear and sorrow so we can detect it in others’ faces. We endure severance to know the severity of its pain. Suffering feels like a curse when it’s truly a gift. Without it, we would never know the joy of being made whole. But most of all, since experience with suffering draws us to others who suffer, without it we’d never learn what joy there is in helping them be made whole.

We suffer so we can know and relate to suffering when we see it. We experience the joy of being made whole to know the joy of helping others be made whole.

(Next: Such a Little Thing)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dog Days

Jesus answered, “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15.28)

A Message We Should Hear

Serendipity can be a lovely thing. While working on the Great of Women in Scripture series, at Rev. Anthony Venn-Brown’s urging, I reengaged with our Australian family at freedom2be, a lively discussion forum for GLBT believers. In conversation there I referred to Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and pastor of San Francisco’s radically inclusive City of Refuge. That triggered a search for video of her, which turned up an amazing—and highly provocative—sermon (see below) about the Phoenician woman, whose story unfolds in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. As I watched Bishop Flunder, a “Eureka!” moment occurred. The Phoenician woman was the perfect closer for the series, because if there were a patron saint for rejected and disenfranchised Christians, she would be it.

We’ve discussed her before, in an October 2009 post, Crumbs. But Bishop Flunder's take challenges us to look at Jesus’s response to her in harshly realistic, perhaps even unflattering light in order to comprehend the dynamic that exists between traditional Christians and marginalized believers today. This will be difficult for some of us. Yet it drives home a message we should hear. And setting the stage is most important, as what happens just prior to the Phoenician woman’s encounter with Christ indubitably contributes to His response.

Clean and Unclean

Her story begins with Jesus coming off another confrontation with Jewish legalists, who condemn His disciples for not practicing traditional hygiene. It seems they don’t wash up before dinner. Clearly, the legalists are splitting hairs here to trap Jesus in a web of controversy. Instead of answering their charges, He counters with another example of how they misuse Scripture to criticize. If someone decided money he’d ordinarily give to his mother and father should go to God’s work, you’d say he disobeyed the commandment to honor his parents, He says. “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15.7) Jesus indicts this mentality by quoting Isaiah 29.13: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” He tells the crowd: “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (v10) This offends Jesus’s critics, which exasperates Him. He more or less says to the disciples, “Let’s get away from all this.” They head into pagan country, far from the legalist rabble. No sooner do they arrive than the Phoenician woman shows up and essentially forces Jesus to eat His own words.

Scraping, but Scrappy

It’s not one of Jesus’s finer hours. He’s tired of arguing. His defenses are up. He’s not in a good mood, and He knows it. Taking a break where He’s not widely known among people who aren’t that interested in Him is a smart move. Then the mother of a deeply disturbed daughter hears the famous Healer is in town and rushes to Him. Jesus ignores her, but the woman persists. The disciples urge Him to send her away. Jesus can’t be bothered. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” He says. (v24) The woman throws herself in front of Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me!” She knows she’s scraping—begging for favor and getting on His nerves. She scrapes because she’s scrappy. She’s like a mongrel that won’t stop scratching at the door until his master feeds him.

Jesus is annoyed. He says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it their dogs.” (v26) Did Jesus just call a fiercely devoted mother asking Him to help her daughter a dog? Yes. Did He declare her unworthy of His attention? Yes. After comparing Israel to “sheep” and “children,” can we dismiss the racism in the epithet? No. And since He just blasted legalists for taking simplistic traditional stances in ethically fraught situations, can we overlook His reply is “unclean”? No. We can spin His comment every which way: He’s testing the woman’s faith; He’s impersonating hypocrisy for the disciples’ (and our) sake; He’s just tired after a bad day. Yet there’s a nagging aspect to the story we can’t bypass. Jesus is less shocked by His insult than the woman's insistence. Being called a dog—by a visitor, in the presence of her neighbors—is her least concern. She needs Jesus. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v27) Now Jesus is stunned, as if a light goes off in His head. She’s no better or worse than anyone else. And why? Her needs are no different than anyone else’s. “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted,” He says. With this pronouncement, her daughter is cured instantly and we understand. The Phoenician woman is a dog. She’s relentless in her quest to be heard, regardless how she’s seen. Rather than lick her wounds of rejection, she persists. She makes noise and risks her pride, and her dog-like tenacity makes her legitimate.

Sheep are lovely, but mindless. Dogs protect sheep, not the other way around. To fulfill their purpose in the fold, they bark and scratch to alert shepherds their needs are no different than a sheep’s. If the woman had waited to be recognized, she would never have caused a scene that ultimately confirms Christ’s doctrine of inclusion. Untold millions would have been lost as a result. In the spirit of the Phoenician woman, we must embrace our responsibility to the sheep and Shepherd by owning the “dog” tag. We live in dog days. People of faith are being ignored and vilified because they don’t fit the traditional mold. For reasons no one can explain, shepherds have pushed the dogs aside and let sheep run amok. For their sake—and for all the abandoned dogs who need care and feeding—we need to make noise. We’re foolish to hang by in the case the sheep invite us to join them. That’s never going to happen because we intimidate them. They’re blind to dangers we see; that’s why we belong in the fold. And if we have to scrape a few nerves and beg for scraps to get there, we should. We have great faith. Our request will be granted.

The Church needs dogs. They protect the sheep from danger and prove Christ’s doctrine of inclusion.

(Next: Made Whole)

Postscript: Bishop Yvette Flunder

There are few ministers I admire as much as Bishop Yvette Flunder. Her work for Christian inclusion has raised her to the forefront of the Christian and GLBT communities. And her accomplishment in the Word is second to none. On top of these attributes, she’s just a sharp lady with a lot of class! For those of you who might be interested in her sermon on the Phoenician woman, here is Part One. (Links to Parts Two and Three can be found in the "related videos.") If you take the time to listen to her message, you’ll never hear anyone say “Bow Wow Wow” again without smiling quietly to yourself!