Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Do you trust me???

Jesus had just received news that John the Baptist was dead. Murdered by Herod. His grief sent him to a lonely place to be by himself. But the people heard about this and follow him. Crowding into his private space and private time. When Jesus saw this large crowd that had come the distance to this lonely place to see him, he was filled with pity…with compassion…with love…and he healed those who are sick.
As the day passed it became apparent to the disciples that the people needed to eat. Their solution was to send the people away. Let them look for themselves. Typical human reaction. Look at the situation. Look at your resources. Then make it someone else’s problem. But Jesus had other ideas.
“You yourselves give them something to eat!” he said to his disciples. You can just imagine the disciples response to this one with not an ALDI or Woolies or Cole or even a corner Deli within kilometres. So the disciples see only what they lack. “All we have here are five loaves and two fish.” Not enough to feed 50 let alone 5000. Not enough to provide for these people. Not enough unless you wanted to start a food riot with some getting food and others left to go hungry.
Jesus thinks differently. He takes the food…organizes the crowd…gives thanks to God…and starts handing out bread and fish. Again can you imagine the disciples being given bread and fish, then Jesus telling them to start handing it out to the crowd. They know much food is there. The fear of failure or major embarrassment must have been pretty strong at that point. However, everyone ate and was filled plus there were 12 baskets of leftovers as well.
So what is this story all about??
There have many articles and discussions on this story. Did Jesus perform a miracle and make the 5 loaves and 2 fish feed the crowd? Or did Jesus’ actions inspire the crowd to share the food that they had brought with them to provide the feast? Personally I think that either way a miracle took place. If somehow this small amount of food was made enough to feed a small city then praise God for his bountiful provision. On the other hand, if the actions of Jesus created generous hearts in the people of the crowd and so motivated them to break bread with their neighbour and share their food then praise God for his bountiful provision again. But if we focus just on this one aspect we miss other lessons to be learned.
One of those lessons is this: The story of the feeding of the 5000 is as much about trust as it is about the provision of food from 5 loaves and 2 fish.
The crowd’s behaviour is an act of trust when they left behind their homes and trekked out into the wilderness maybe looking for the promised land once again, except this time in the life and work of the Messiah, Jesus. Matthew is inviting us to remember another group of people who abandoned their homes in Egypt and head out into the wilderness, and experience another "miraculous" feeding: Moses and the manna (Exodus 16).
Think also of the trust that is implicit in this.. NOBODY KNEW WHERE THE FOOD CAME FROM.
Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? But that didn't happen. Five thousand people took Jesus’ word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well, and sat down to eat food. They were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more. And remember, in this culture the sharing of food was an expression of relationship, friendship and protection.

There is also a question of trust in Jesus’ direction to the disciples. First when he tells them to give the crowd something to eat. Then when he gives them the loaves and fishes to distribute to the crowd. Finally when the disciples go around collecting the leftovers in baskets. At each point Jesus is confronting the disciples with one question, “Do you trust me?”

Do they trust Jesus enough to believe that they already possess all that is needed to feed the crowd? Do they trust Jesus enough to start distributing the bread and fish to the crowd?
Do they trust Jesus enough to start wandering around with empty baskets, expecting them to be filled?

And as always, our Gospel writer is challenging us also.

Do you trust Jesus? Do you trust God’s provision? Do you trust the promise of Jesus to give you life in abundance? Do you trust God to carry out his work and will despite the lack of visible resources? Do you trust the promises of Jesus to never fail you or forsake you?
In some way the events of this feeding invite us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, our own insufficiencies. We are invited to remember and recognize those moments when the task at hand seemed too much for our resources, our spirit, our church. We are invited to remember those times when we have seen and experienced God at work blessing, breaking, and giving away our meagre resources in order to feed a crowd.
The miracle occurred because Jesus risked everything with those meagre loaves and fishes. The miracle occurred because the disciples were obedient to Jesus. The miracle occurred because the crowd obeyed Jesus and stayed and ate and were filled. The miracle occurred because Jesus trusted the Father’s love for his son and his people.
If we are looking for a miracle then trust is the key. Trust in the gracious, loving, compassionate God who has sent his Son and gives us grace and who promises that he will give us all we need to support this body and life, and will never face us with an obstacle that cannot be overcome if only we will trust him.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Do you have your ears on???

In Matthew 13:31-33 and 44-52 Jesus gives us the Kingdom Parables. Word and story pictures of the 'kingdom of heaven'. He talks about patience, slow growth, great sacrifice, total focus, and getting on with the job. He reminds us that we are simply to be casting the net out there and leave the judging and choosing to him. I suspect that is why we continue to claim to lack an understanding of this kingdom. It is not that Jesus has failed to tell us all about it or that Scripture doesn't give us enough information, but that we are not necessarily comfortable with what we are hearing. We like growth. We like success...big success. We like to make sure that the good people and the right people are part of our church and faith community. We like to have our cake and eat it we live our lives as disciples but without too much sacrifice or discomfort. Maybe that is why Jesus says several times in his teaching, "Listen, then, if you have ears!"

So do you have your ears on???

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Weeds and wheat...which is which???

Matthew 13:24-30 (36-43) The tares among the wheat

Another gardening parable, but this time Jesus seems more interested in the weeds. So much so that this parable is often referred to as ‘The Parable of the Weeds’. So let’s take a look at the parable and see what it says to the people of Jesus’ day and to us today.

24 Jesus told them another parable:
The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field.

So the story begins. Your typical landowner sows his field in anticipation of a good crop. Everyone knows that to get a good crop you need good seed. But Jesus is already asking us to listen closely and think deeply. This is not a morality tale or some fable, but a picture of the Kingdom of heaven. A glimpse into the workings of the Kingdom of pay attention!

25 One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.

Feuds between families and individuals and nations are as old as history. Jesus’ hearers would not have been surprised by this action. Neither are we. An enemy’s purpose is always the same, to get revenge and make it as costly and difficult as possible. In the parable today what better way than to corrupt the good seed by sowing weeds among it. This enemy must have been pretty determined to have taken time to harvest the weeds when they were in seed to have enough to create the havoc he intended.

26 When the plants grew and the heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up.

The weed Jesus is referring to here is a poisonous darnel which is closely related to bearded wheat and in early stages of growth is hard to distinguish from it. The difference between darnel and real wheat is evident only when the plants begin to approach maturity and the ears appear. The ears of the real wheat are heavy with seed and will droop, while the ears of the darnel are light and airy and will stand up straight.

27 The man's servants came to him and said,
Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?
28 It was some enemy who did this, he answered.

How could this happen? The answer is clear and simple. The landowner knew that the seed was good so the appearance of the weed in such profusion points to a deliberate act of sabotage.

28aDo you want us to go and pull up the weeds? they asked him.
29 No, he answered,
because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them.30 Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.

The eagerness of the servants to get rid of the weeds is understandable. They know the heart of their master and that he had sown good seed for a good crop. Their desire is well intended. But the master points out the problem. Trying to remove the weeds at this point, probably before everything has fully ripened, will simply cause greater damage to the overall harvest. People tramping through the unripened grain trying to remove the weeds will damage the good grain. The profusion of the weeds indicates that its roots are intertwined with the wheat so when you pull out the weed you pull out the wheat as well. Patience is called for. Waiting is the answer. The solution will come at the harvest when the reapers will begin to work their way methodically across the paddock separately weed from wheat, tying off the bundles of weed for use as fuel for the winter fires, and storing the wheat in the barns for food.

Now this is one of those times when Jesus also gives us an explanation of his parable. Let’s listen...

36 When Jesus had left the crowd and gone indoors, his disciples came to him and said,
Tell us what the parable about the weeds in the field means.
37 Jesus answered,
The man who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man;38 the field is the world; the good seed is the people who belong to the Kingdom; the weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One;39 and the enemy who sowed the weeds is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvest workers are angels.40 Just as the weeds are gathered up and burned in the fire, so the same thing will happen at the end of the age:41 the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things,42 and they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and gnash their teeth.43 Then God's people will shine like the sun in their Father's Kingdom. Listen, then, if you have ears!
No need to explain the explanation. It is pretty clear. What we need to consider is why this parable? What is Jesus calling us to do as his disciples who are awaiting this day of harvest and of separation.

Firstly, why this parable?

Perhaps there were some overzealous "weeders" in Matthew's congregation who wanted to purify the community by rooting out the bad seed. This seems to be a temptation for followers of Jesus in every age. We whip ourselves into a weeding frenzy, certain that we know the difference between weeds and wheat, and that we know how to deal with the weeds!

Jesus' parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop. This has played out far too many times in the congregations and denominations...with some determined to root out anyone who does not agree with the "right" interpretation of Scripture, liturgical practice, or stand on a particular issue. There are also those who pronounce judgment on people outside the church -- on people of other faiths, for instance -- declaring them to be destined for eternal damnation. Whether judgment is focused within the church or without, it does serious damage to the church and its mission.

Jesus makes clear that we simply cannot be certain who is "in" or who is "out." In fact, God's judgment about these matters will take many by surprise. Thank God it is not up to us!

Secondly, what is Jesus calling us to do as his disciples who are awaiting this day of harvest and of separation.

Maybe I should begin with some of the ‘not’s that are part of this parable.

Notice that Jesus does NOT advise taking revenge on the enemy. He does not advise continuing the feud by getting back at the enemy.
Notice that Jesus does NOT advise that WE try and make the situation pure and perfect. He rightly points out that OUR trying to makes things perfect will only make things worse. The wheat and weed PLANTS can be separated, the ROOTS cannot. Pulling up weed plants will also unavoidably pull up wheat roots.
Notice that this is a parable about the FIELD - about the collective experience. It should be understood as a comment on the collective experience of the whole world; or a whole congregation; or a whole person because in all cases we find an unavoidable, inseparable mixture of good and bad, wheat and weeds together sown. According to this parable, we should expect that to be true; and we should not expect that God is going to come and take out all the bad things and make everything and everyone wholly good and pure.
Notice that is not lost; all is not left muddled and pointless. At the end, the weeds ARE separated and burned. At the end, what is pleasing to God is taken in to God's care and keeping. But remember, you are also the FIELD. At the harvest, the weeds in you are removed, and the wheat in you is gathered in.

So what are we to do?

Put simply, this is a parable of patience, particularly a call to patience in judgment. Three reasons come to mind for having patience.

1. We cannot carry out the separation effectively because we cannot discern the heart of another individual. If we attempt to do so we could make a mistake/error of judgment. Remember some people may think you are one of the ‘weeds’.
2. God has fixed the moment of separation and the time of the harvest. All must be ripe before harvest begins.
3. God is giving people time to come to know Jesus and repent…cf 2 Peter 3:9

This world is not the place to judge people. We are to seek everyone for the kingdom of God. We are to tell everyone about Jesus Christ. Everyone is welcome in the church…everyone…no matter what. Lifestyle issues and personal issues are dealt with within the family of God through the Word and the convicting power of the Spirit. That is why we are called into this fellowship...this body...this that we get alongside one another and learn of and from one another.

Verse 30 has a point for us to remember. When the servants are keen to pull up the weeds and the master stops them he says...

30 Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together...

That word so simply translated as ‘let’ in the text today can also be translated as ‘permit’ or ‘allow’ or even, (and most frequently in the New Testament it is translated this way), as ‘forgive’.
So to put it another way, the master calls on the servants to ...
"Forgive them to grow together until the harvest."
This is how evil is dealt by the people of God. Not with judgement, but with forgiveness.
We can leave the weeding to God, and get on with the mission Jesus has given us -- proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God drawing near.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The parable of the Sower...

Matthew 13:1-9 is an intriguing little tale. Let's ignore Jesus' interpretation recorded for us in vs18-23 of that same chapter for the moment and just look at some aspects of the parable itself.

For instance as we read the parable the role of the hearer is both seed and soil. The seed that falls on the path is the Word of God and Jesus speaks of the hearer's heart as the soil which has been trodden into a path and its inability to retain the word. The seed that falls among the weeds, the rocks and in the fertile soil is the hearer and the growth is how the hearer responds to the Word. The soil in these situations is the life in which the hearer is rooted.

The parable also makes some interesting inferences as well. The kingdom of God is something that is slow growing and not some explosive revolution. It needs time to take root and grow. At the same time God's grace is being sown liberally even in areas that are potentially barren and will produce little or no result.

Marks of the kingdom in the believers life is one of fruit bearing...reproducing the faith in the lives of others through faithful witness and nurture. Also there is for the believer the message of hope that despite all the difficulties of life there will be a harvest.

Finally there are always the questions posed for the reader and hearer of this parable. "What kind of seed or soil am I?" It's a good question. Is my faith life one that is bearing fruit in me and in those around me? What kind of 'soil' in life am I trying to grow in? Is it good soil that will aid my growth or soil that saps my ability to reproduce?

The other question is "What sort of hearer am I?" Is God's Word something that you give casual attention to, listening with little or no attention? Do you hear it through the filter of the world, judging its usefulness or relevance on the basis of whether it fits into your worldview or lifestyle? Or does the Word of God speak to your heart and life? Do you welcome the Word as life-giving and life-directing? Do you respond in obedience and joy?

One last thought. An interesting thing about this parable is that it seems that Jesus is also explaining why his teaching was not always successful. I guess that is a comfort to me as a pastor and teacher and Christian. Lack of response to the Word is as much about the hearer as it is about my presentation of that Word.