Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Talking to Myself about Faith and Ministry in December

Aren't you tired of people asking "Are you ready for Christmas?"
They're just making conversation. It's like December's way of asking "how's it going?"
You mean to be a little less serious about everything. 
Yes, and give everyone a break, including yourself. We all have a lot on our minds, and everyone is doing the best we can.
Christmas has changed for me. I'm not doing ministry anymore. This whole month used to be really crazy, like adding another full time job.
If someone has never had to work overtime during the holidays, then you can't expect them to understand. The more you look around, the more you'll see that most people have to work on or over a major holiday or two. I'm interested in your first comment, about how Christmas has changed for you.
Our parents and family members have died. Most of our younger family has moved far away. I wanted to make a big Christmas meal, but that's hard to do for three. I feel alone.
You could consider yourself lucky you don't have to plan for 15 or 20. Be creative. You are free to do some things a little differently if you want. 
What do you mean?
Getting together is the important thing. So plan things that everyone can do and enjoy. The main thing is you do it together.
It will be different, but maybe you're right.
You're always making memories for yourself and the people you love. They can bring a smile. Sharing stories- make that your priority. That's the bread and butter of the gathering.
To change the subject, when I was in full time ministry, I ploughed ahead without much thought to those who question the Christmas Gospel. I realize that I have questions too.
If you have your doubts about how things happened in the Christmas Story, then you're certainly not alone. God comes to all of us, especially to those who have been disregarded or judged because they can't or don't believe in a literal reading.
Go on, you have my attention.
The point is, you can still believe in the story as literal and also hear a deeper message. And you can still believe in the teaching within the story even though you question the words as scientifically verifiable. They are Gospels, not hard journalism, a reality series, or twitter posts. Their meaning then and for today is what's important. And after all, Mark wrote his Gospel first-- and skipped the birth stories altogether! 
The meaning? You mean, that God actually loves us, even in the mess we're in?  What about the Israel and Hamas War? Everyone is choosing sides as if there's a moral equivalency with terrorists.  I don't think there is, just my opinion. Pray for peace, believe the Christmas message. Pray for the  release of all the hostages as soon as possible.  Pray and support those people and organizations who are trying to supply food, water, medicine and shelter. And for those who are negotiating a fair and just settlement. 
Part of what overwhelms me this time of year is everyone's hardship, even locally. There are so many calls for financial gifts.
Ask God to help you make a decision on supporting one or two worthy causes, then let go.
What about those who are counting on what I did last year. 
That was last year. Again, ask God about it.
When did the amount I spend on people start to be so important?
Since before you were born. Joyful giving is possible within limits. There's so much guilt in wondering if you did enough and stress in overspending too.
That's helpful to hear, I guess. There's just so much pressure to perform.  I don't think I will ever finish my to do list.
Now you're worrying me. Don't be afraid to ask for help now and then.
There are just some things I needed to get off my chest.
Then do it, and let it go downstream.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Deconstructing Perfectionism

Myth: (5) an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

The myth of perfectionism can make leaders and their communities havens of toxicity and control, instead of freedom and growth.  In groups espousing Christian faith, the perfectionist myth is sometimes referenced by an imperative of Jesus: "You shall be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." *

For me, perfection is an ideal and exists only in the eye of the beholder. It can project an image of being in control and in-touch. But the the dark passengers of the perfectionist are fear and self-disdain. 

Aspiration and idealism are worthy attributes. Self-improvement and pursuing excellence are not perfectionism. The core belief underlying excellence is that I am created and equipped to better myself and my world.  Not so with perfectionism. 

Perfectionism is older brother to hypocrisy. Clergy fulfill a necessary role in communities of faith. But if image management is my default, I may be overlooking a rotting spiritual center. The perfectionist as a spiritual leader is a positive hindrance to the flourishing of others.

Perfectionist Myths

1. "I'm a lot harder on myself than I am on others." Really? However, we end up treating others as we treat ourselves (or worse). Claiming the perfectionist tag can be a red flag for self-delusion and grandiosity.  

2. "They would like me if I try harder." Is living to impress others a worthy goal, and is it really possible? Being and doing your best is not the same as people-pleasing.

3. "I am not enough." Instead of being created in the image and likeness of God, the perfectionist is not enough. Resources like God's love and peace are scarce. 

Recovery from Perfectionism

1. Deconstruct the myth of perfectionism.
   What is the source of perfectionism within? Fear, shame, guilt?
   What does perfectionism promise and are these promises true?
    In what ways do I benefit from image control?
    In what ways has perfectionism drained, hurt me?
    How is it affecting my family and friendships? 
2. I can affirm that I am created in the image and likeness of God. Can I begin to learn  compassionate love of self and neighbor? I deal with my self- hate without projecting it onto others.

3. I accept that I am capable of a God-relationship that doesn't diminish or hinder others. In light of this, all labels are constructions of the ego, the false self. 

Things I have found helpful

1. Find a helpful psychotherapist who is a good fit. The objective here is too explore my own perfectionism, without fear of judgement- or "fixing." 

2. Recovery from perfectionism requires my ongoing inner work- learning a new way beginning with honesty and self acceptance, and self-love. Perfectionism is a core issue for recovery groups, such as Workaholics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

3. A spiritual director helps to explore my God-relationship and God-image. Why? Because I often treat myself and others in the same way I envision God treating me.  A spiritual director can listen to me in a way others close to me- or others I serve- can't. 

*See Matthew 5:48, NRSV. Another translation of "perfect" is helpful too. New Testament Greek scholar Clarence Jordan translates the same verse this way: "Now you, all of you, must be mature, as your spiritual Father is mature." The text can be found online at kenanderson.net/bible/html/matthew. 

Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection, Sunday, August 23

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"

15:13 He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."

15:15 But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us."

15:16 Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 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."

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."

15:24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."

15:26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

15:27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Why is this story included in Matthew's Gospel? Matthew's Jewish audience would be familiar with the Canaanites given their frequent mention in the Old Testament. It strikes at the heart of the most ancient of animosities in the Old Testament. As the narrative in Joshua and Judges goes, the land of the Canaanites was inhabited by indigenous peoples that the Israelites displaced by murder and mayhem, in order to take the land God had promised Israel. *

Recall that Matthew is a missionary text. According to Luke-Acts, the mission has already traversed many improbable cultural boundaries, such as the development of the Gentile-Greek communities. Matthew adds a contributing story out of Jesus' ministry. Even though an Israelite healing a Canaanite's daughter is improbable, still, with God, all things are possible.**

Consider the Following Surprises
  • The woman is the exemplar in the story (not the disciples, again). She shows the pure, undiluted motivation of love, acting for the best interests of another. What else could explain her action?
  • It's the Canaanite woman first speaking faith where there was complete dismissal.
  • It's the Canaanite woman who actually does God's will and proves to be a true disciple. Recall Matthew 7:21-24.
  • Whom do I dismiss and whom do I deem undeserving or outside of God's blessings?
  • The faith of my enemy (or those I have labeled as "other") is, according to this story, authentic. Maybe more so than mine. I resist this because it exposes my entitlement and privilege.
*According to the biblical narrative in Joshua, Israel was directed by Moses to take Canaanite land and livestock, but chase down the fleeing Canaanites and kill them. Judges notes, in somewhat conflicting fashion, that Israel was unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites entirely. While most of the surviving Canaanite people were enslaved, Sidon is mentioned in Judges 1:31-32 as one of few settlements where the inhabitants were neither conquered nor subject to forced labor.
**This is one explanation why this story of a Canaanite and her daughter is presented in Matthew.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Surviving Ministry: Choose to Finish Well

As the page turned to the last 18 months of full time ministry, I felt a real sense of freedom to create something new and needed. Initiative played a big part. I consulted with an expert in geriatric social work.* Then I reached out to CarePartners, a local group that was already resourcing a long standing social ministry in the congregation.** 

The new "Caregiver Relief Ministry" would, after a year of recruiting and equipping, begin serving its first clients. In fact, shorty before I left the congregation, the team partnered with its first two families to offer its ministry. 

Following through on such a project gave me at least two saving features of ending things well. First, it kept me focused, centered, and aligned with my core values. Second, it was an opportunity to leave behind a functioning ministry team. 

What else did I learn in the last 18 months of ministry?
I learned the importance of remembrance. One, it is important to claim the power of your ministry narrative. This is about both the last year but, more importantly, the longer witness of your service. The most meaningful ways of marking my retirement was the observance at annual conference. Those who are leaving light the candles of the those who will be newly ordained- then extinguish theirs. It was a telling event, marking both an ending and beginning. I discounted this observance in years past, until I was the one retiring! 

Too, the congregation's reception was a great opportunity to share. I was lifted by the simple and sincere words of gratitude and blessing. There were many honest words of encouragement. from those I had worked with for all or part of 16 years. (3)

I learned that ageism is alive in churches and their bureaucracy. All the more, resist it and claim the truth of your story. One of the drawbacks of downsizing tenured clergy staff (which I was) is that it minimizes the previous years of collaboration and accomplishment. For the downscaling motif to be credible, your story is overlooked, marginalized. (4) When your story is diminished, so is the congregation's. Our work together was shared and never a solo accomplishment.

Your leaving may be couched in terms of "stewardship" or "faithfulness," or "family needs." However, your life's work too is an example of stewardship and faithfulness.  There was time well shared and given, there were gifts employed for the good of others, there were opportunities to love and be loved. And, yes, there is faithful management of resources in all of that.

Tell your story, with honesty and encouragement. The official church media or gatherings are probably not the best venues- and they may not be open to you. I threw a dinner party at a favorite restaurant. I invited those with whom I had close connections in ministry and life: former colleagues, friends, family, mentors, etc. It was my best chance to express gratitude and appreciation. I will long remember the stories, joy, and laughter we shared. Your celebration will be different from mine. Still, discover what is a unique theme in your work and find ways to affirm it!

Finally, retirement is difficult work and can't be done (well) alone. Welcome the help and support of people who know you and care for you: friends, family, a spiritual director, a therapist. Ironically, we who teach and preach about God's love and peace are tempted to go it alone. Don't do it. Live out the truth that God's mercy, hope and faithfulness are available to you. 

It's up to you to finish well:
  1. Focus on one important thing you can accomplish with the time you have left in full time ministry.
  2. Participate in the official observances provided by the larger church and the reception the congregation offers.
  3. Witness to your core values. With gratitude, tell your ministry story by celebrating with those most important to you.
  4. At all costs, resist the default to endure this passage alone. Keep reaching out to God and to those who know and care.  
(1) I am indebted to classes and conversations with the late Suzanna Waters Castillo, who, at the time was the Distinguished Faculty Associate, The University of Wisconsin, Madison. The certification program that she directed, "Mental Health and the Older Adult," was unique in its research-based, best practices approach to geriatric care.  
(2) CarePartners worked with us to tailor a ministry to provide limited, trained, and congregational care givers for our parishioners. In the best way, we became partners in ministry.
(3) I will long remember one member telling me, in essence, "The time before my retirement was harder than I could have imagined."
(4) There is scant research on finishing well in ministry. A piece that raises good questions is Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to RetirementChurch Answers, featuring Thom Rainer

Friday, August 4, 2023

Teaching and Preaching the Gospel for Sunday, August 6

Effective Gospel studies or sermons begin (and perhaps end !) with questions that open doors of hope and creativity. Here are some suggestions, using Jesus' Feeding of the Five Thousand in Matthew 14:13-41. 

  1. How do you think the first audiences of Christians would have heard this feeding story?
  2. What, for you, is a key word or phrase in this passage? Why?
  3. Note that Jesus tells the disciples, "You give them something to eat." How do you hear this directive?
  4. What do you make of the passage when it states "all ate and were filled?" (14:20a)? 
  5. How might this story's message be heard among those living in poverty vs. those living in relative wealth? Does it really matter? Why?   
  6. What does it mean for you to have enough? For our life together?
  7. How might the bread and fish that Jesus Christ gives fill you? 
  8. How might your life be changed as a result of hearing this story? How would we live and share differently? 
There is always a great temptation in answering these questions as you would a Bible quiz, such as listing what one must or should believe about Jesus and miracles. Try to resist this approach for yourself- and invite others to think for themselves too. 

List as many possible responses as you can for each question. The open-endedness will allow more space for the Spirit to speak- and so that everyone may see entirely new and different possibilities for fruitful and faithful action moving forward. 


Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, August 6

Matthew 14:13-21

14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

14:16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

14:17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

14:18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. 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.

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

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 Guided Meditation

I invite you to reflect on the Gospel story, as if you were one of Jesus’ disciples. It may help to read it slowly, pausing whenever it feels right. It can also be read in a group setting.

It’s a sunny, breezy, late morning on the lake. It’s almost mealtime and I am looking forward to breaking bread with Jesus and the others. It will be the first time since we all heard the disturbing news of John’s beheading.  John and Jesus were very close; the two respected and emulated each other. Where is Jesus?” I run out to see Jesus, who wading out to one of boats anchored off the beach. 

Quickly, he climbs in, then sails farther and farther offshore. I call to him and track him from the shoreline.  I trot along the crest of the slope and stop at a lookout point. A huge, hidden cove opens-up before me and I see a beach teaming with people. They have gathered, from the water all the way up the sandy slopes.. I stop in quiet amazement…


I walk down through the sand and rocks to get a closer look. I spot Jesus at the water’s edge, healing and curing everyone he can touch. He takes time to be with each person. From the youngest to the oldest, in families or by themselves, they come. Surely there is no one in whole world with Jesus’ compassion and dogged determination to love people. He is like a good shepherd who loves and protects his sheep no matter what.


As the afternoon light wanes, I hear someone say “It’s almost evening now.” Another one wants Jesus to send everyone away. I overhear Jesus’ reply, “Don’t send anyone away just yet. You give them something to eat.”  I notice a few around him gather a small serving of smoked fish and bread, enough to feed a small family. They hand Jesus what they have collected. I hear Jesus’ words to the crowd, “Free people sit down to eat. We are a people delivered from slavery and captivity. Everyone, please find a  place on the green grass. There is room for everyone.” Today, even though it seems everything is against us, I sense the presence of the Lord, and a peace deep down in my soul…

I see Jesus giving thanks over the food. He then starts to break the bread and says, “Blessed are you when you are kind and merciful to others.” He then tells us to share as God has shared with us. When I receive my piece of bread, I pass it along.  The pace quickens as more and more bread is passed. As far as I can see, people are eating to their contentment and in quiet.


As the crowd begins to break up and walk into the waning light, I join the volunteers collecting any leftover bread. There’s enough for me but right now, that doesn’t seem important. I’m bursting with thanksgiving for Jesus. Somehow this day has made me feel renewed, like it was the first day of my life! I dedicate myself to loving God, even my enemies. My heart overflows with love... 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

How I Survived Ministry: Clarity

By the age of 60, I had been working full time for 37 years. Sometimes it helps to take a look at the mileage not just chronological age. (1)  

About that time, there was an episode that has become a benchmark. I was sharing Holy Communion with a parishioner, a resident of an Assisted Living home, and a hospice patient.

As I greeted the patient, there was the remains of a meal that surely had been served hours before. The meal tray was covered with ants. I couldn't miss it as I prepared the Sacrament. I also saw ants on the patient's bedding and tee shirt. Where was the Nursing Staff, Meal Service, the Director? (2)   

Soon after, I contacted the Hospice Chaplain. I also called the facility's manager/director, who was out when I visited. The Assisted Living Manager said that the room would be fumigated soon, and thanked me for letting them know. (How could fumigation be done with the hospice patient in the room.?! I was assured that it could be done safely). 

Amidst the shock, sadness, and disillusionment, I sensed that something was ending. The idea that I was making a difference seemed far fetched, an illusion. The notion that I had the right to know the impact of my work seemed more about my hubris and  entitlement.  

A new clarity had been forming for awhile. From the beginning of the ordination process and well into full time ministry, the most important measurables in ministry were external: budgets, buildings, and bodies in pews. But what was the measurable for the inner person, the spirit? Institutionally, it's a secondary question. But it should matter. The practice of Christian ministry should, one would think, bring one closer, not farther from, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. 

Of course it's not a bad thing to take care of your spirit and to care for your soul while caring for others. But all the personal sabbaths, journaling, devotions, and fasts will not change the system to value the measurements less. sure, everyone needs skills that are useful. But this is not the argument for more and better effectiveness, economy, and efficiency.  All the technique in the world does not lead to sustainability and creativity, and transformation. To do that, one needs to love deeply and often. And, drilling down, one needs to be known and loved.   

Under the long testing of full time ministry, my hopes and ideals of pleasing others were disintegrating. Was gratifying others a worth my best self anyway? I began to let go of the notion that I could fulfill the expectations of myself, others, the church, and the exhaustive pastoral role. In grief and wonder, part of my life's journey was ending.and a new season was calling. 

(1) In the UMC, the clergy pension program is based on years of service- not age.
(2) After serving as Chaplain in a continuing care facility, I was trained as a volunteer Ombudsman (advocate) in Long term Care by the State of Texas. At the time, there was stringent State oversight of Long Term Care facilities, but not so with Assisted Living.

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 30

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

13:31 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 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."

13:33 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

13:44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

13:47 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."

13:52 And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Unbridled Hope, Joy, and...Gnashing of Teeth?!* 
What I Learn from this Lesson

1. The nature of God's work is hard to see or notice amidst inner and outer noise
I want the silver bullet of spirituality (and of life). Who doesn't? But so much of what is offered is the clanging bell, the noise of the sizzling, crashing cymbal.* Big Box church has its way of offering excitement, spectacle and escape. But does it facilitate listening to God, who speaks in whispers and sheer silence? Not for me.

In contrast, these parables lead me to noticing something in the common things that speak of God. There is simple hope and joy in witnessing a tiny seed grow into a tree, hunting down and finding the lost coin. There's the way of yeast popping its way into the dough, a simple happening, but transformational. If you want to know more about God's kingdom, be ready to find the star- power of enduring hope, joy and transformation through these understated and accessible metaphors.

I once consulted with a Spiritual Director, a Sister, who asked me to explore what moved me to pray. For example, what was I doing and thinking and feeling immediately before I was moved to pray.  So many little things to name, things that led me to a deeper communion with God. 

It was a formidable, analytical assignment, because my default is to overlook the micro- mustard seeds or the small measure of yeast, transforming its way to something new and different. My temptation is lethargy, it seems. What's yours? Also called the "noonday devil," it's not always at noon that I encounter it.** It hinders the movement of hope and wonderment and joy. Lethargy blocks the inbreaking movement of God's love in and through me.

2. I learn that God's love is overwhelming and priceless.
What moves me to joy but the over-abundant love of God? Christian faith tells me that I am created out of love in order to love my neighbor as myself.  I am, and everyone who shares this earth, created as a result of God's love. We are God's, made in God's likeness. Bet the house on that!  Sell the house for that treasure. Sell the office for that pearl. All springing from joy, the fruit of being loved.

Throughout my journey I have been forced to look at my intentions. Why am I on the Christian journey? What, in the lost coin, do I really need to rediscover? How can any joy, service and kindness not be sustained by the One whose nature and name is Love. *** Without Love, there is no lasting hope or joy or service. When I am driven by guilt, shame, and a persecution complex , I create my own kind of hell (for me and others). 

3. I learn what to keep and what to throw away. 
In the readings for this Sunday and last, Jesus teaches that a furnace of fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth will be the fate of evil and evildoers. These verses from Matthew are a stumbling block to many and rightly so. Even if metaphors of judgement, having the angels sorting out the harvest or separating the good from bad fish is without subtlety or grace. For today, I have a just thought or two.

I believe that part of our life review in this life and perhaps in the world to come, offers me a chance to review my life, choices, actions, and intentions in the light of God's love. In essence such an inventory is the final harvest, the separation of the good and bad fish. But, it's about me and only me, not about judging anyone else. I have come to believe that the real gnashing of teeth is here- on earth- in my refusal to live in love and clinging to what does not last and what cannot guarantee happiness. ****

*Drummers, wear earplugs early on when drumming. Take it from me, cymbals cause hearing loss. 
**The term "noonday devil" appears in Macrina Wederkehr's Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully through the Hours of the Day, Ave Maria Press, 2010.
***Come, Thou Traveler Unknown, hymn by Charles Wesley, Hymn #386, The United Methodist Hymnal, 1990.
****I only speak for myself; a life review is akin to the 4th and 5th Steps in Recovery. In my recovery, these Steps cover what was done to me by others as well as what I have done to others. Step 5 is telling that story, in compassion, to another human being, as well as my Higher Power. 

Friday, July 21, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for July 23

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
13:24 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

13:25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

13:26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

13:27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'

13:28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'

13:29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

13:30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

13:36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field."

13:37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;

13:38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,

13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,

13:42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The Story
In God's kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, God rules. God's realm is everywhere and there is no place where God is not present.* 

The brilliant metaphor in this reading is the wheat field invaded with a pernatious weed that has become a threat to the harvest. The interloper cannot be distinguished from the wheat plants. How do the workers make sure that the wheat is not choked out?

The default is to try to fix the situation by weeding the field. In South Texas, the time to weed lawns is in the spring. If you don't do it when the weeds first appear, you will have missed your chance to stop them. If you wait until summer, you will end up pulling up the lawn, or the weed killer will burn the grass. The weeds can overtake the lawn very quickly. 

The harvest in Jesus' time was the process of separating wheat from chaff. The crop was collected and pitched onto the threshing floor. Here the gatherings were cut under the weight  of a sledge. Once thrashed, the mixture was winnowed, a process that separated the grain from other debris. This process was repeated as needed.**   

The explanation of the parable is a brief but clear commentary on the nature of moral evil and the threat it poses to God's rule and reign on earth, which includes all humankind. Consider this working definition of moral evil: doing harm, intentionally. With that as a given, here some points to consider.
  1. Evil is a Liar What better image than the story of the weeds looking just like the wheat? For evil to progress, lies are told as truth. We can tell lies to ourselves and each other. I often believe what I want to believe, hear what I want to hear, and I prefer whatever casts me in a positive light. 
  2. Evil is an Escape Artist Through finger pointing, blaming, accusing, or shaming, I can project evil on another person, race, or religion. "They" are cast as non-persons, undeserving of kindness or respect. Scapegoating causes great harm and is another way evil thrives. 
  3. Evil Multiplies. Unfortunately, evil can have a field day in people and institutions whose official mission statements provide cover for the harm they may cause, even in the name of religious faith. The hypocrisy can be covered by more and more lies. 
  4. Evil Hides Out. The weeds are planted under cover of the night. The destructive weeds hide in the wheat. Because evil intentions exist in the mind, no one can know the true motivations of another human being. The hiddenness of evil is suggested in the word "den" in Scripture, as in a "a den of thieves, a den of iniquity," etc.
  5. Evil Can Be Outlasted. Because the weeds threaten the crop, we are tempted to multiply the harm. When I try to fix the troublemakers, I end up being like them. In what world does Christ call me to judge others without mercy just because I happen to attend church or pray more often?***  
  6. Evil is Judged. Evil will not only be exposed for what it is, but once unmasked, the truth will be shouted from the rooftops. At the end of the harvest, the angels serve God best by doing the hard work. My job is to resist evil without becoming evil and to do no harm. My calling is to wait for God's deliverance in God's time in God's way. 
  7. Our Decisions are Made in Gray Areas. Our lives are lived amidst good and evil. We live in the gray areas, that sphere where we decide the way that leads to greater evil or greater good. That's why our sense of wisdom and discernment of spirits is so important. We make our ethical decisions among the wheat and weeds. 
* See Psalm 139: 7-12
**See Ferrell Jenkins, "Grinding Grain in Biblical Times," April 30, 2012. 
***My friend and mentor, Jim Jackson, has often said that God has given us the ministry of promotion, not quality control.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 16

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!"

13:18 "Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

I love gardening. There's nothing more encouraging than to see seeds make it to maturity. It's also full of surprizes: seeds from a throwaway plant sprout and flower a year later. Who knows where these seeds will end up?! 

While the beginning of the reading tells of a sower throwing seed which lands everywhere, the parable comes in the explanation. The responses to the seed of the word are realistic, varied, and memorable.* The responses that Jesus describes could be considered valid for everyone who has ever heard the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God. 

Available also in Mark and Luke, the story and its parable must have been very useful as well as popular among the earliest believers. Due to the crowds pressing in, Jesus delivers his message from a boat, away from the beach.

Maybe another, "this is the one" is in order, that of a mixture of all four responses. Each one can challenge the maturation of the word to fruition and completion. I can report seasons, weeks, even days, when I was all four of the seeds. As I write this today, one seems to dominate, that of lacking understanding because what was planted in the heart was lost or stolen.**

What robs your spirit of fruition and maturity? For me, the evil comes in my thoughts, ruminations, fears, terrors, and catastrophizing. The panic demands my attention. The long recovery lies in relearning how to think, pray, and breath again. I learn to focus my mind on taming the panicky thoughts, to pray the Examen, and to engage the practice of relaxing breaths. The outcome is that I am freer to respond to the Gospel, in all of its fullness. I have choices. 

A life-giving theology which teaches God's unconditional love in all circumstances not only promotes hearing with understanding, but also, to revel and wonder at the miracle of life sustaining life, to enjoy the outrageous generosity of the sower, who throws the seed with little regard for success. I learn to enjoy growing in love and charity with God and others in m y life. I Learn to celebrate small but real progress. I don't get weighted-down in hopelessness.

No, the parable does not allow me to pretend that wrong, injustice, and harm do not exist, but rather, to see things, myself, others, God, with a greater sense of hope, clarity, and insight. That hope is the implanted word of the coming rule and reign of God.

Where do you find yourself?

*"Understanding" has 163 appearances in Scripture and Apocrypha. See Oremus Bible Browser. Understanding comes from God but is also the fruit of study, meditation, and a gift of God. The way of understanding is the way of wisdom and wonder in God's world. "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom." James 3:13
**The evil one is not capitalized in the text. Satan is translated also as Accuser. See Job 1-2, Zechariah 3:1-2. Self-hate, self-doubt, self-accusation, and hopelessness thwart our flourishing?   

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon';

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

11:25 At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

11:28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

The subheading for vv. 16-19 could read "The Story of the Petulant Children." The children refuse to play the game of sadness or gladness. Here, Jesus likens his generation to unhappy children who are impossible to please. Parents can be very creative in cajoling a child, but a temper tantrum  is sometimes hard to avoid. 

Matthew's theme has jumped from the proclamation and works of the Kingdom of God to commentary on its reception. The focus is now on providing explanation-- why have the majority of the people- "the wise and intelligent ones" - why have they rejected the proclamation of the Kingdom? Jesus will continue to offer explanations throughout the remaining chapters of Matthew.  The children in story comprise the generation who refuse to see and acknowledge God's Kingdom, whether in John's monasticism or in Jesus' wide open, come as you are, table fellowship. The message is revealed to "infants" (not children). 

What then is the third way, the way of wisdom, vindicated by her children? It's the way of receiving with "understanding." Matthew 13: 23. Gratitude and trust sustain the ministry of proclamation and its reception. To contrast with the ingratitude of the children in the story, the way of wisdom is marked with gratitude for being apart of what God is doing in our midst. The way of  wisdom is also the way of trusting God, who is immediately accessible. Those who take up the ministry of teaching and proclaiming the Gospel learn to trust the results to God. 

The whole point of the oft quoted passage of 11:28-30 is that the invitation and gift to live in response to God's kingdom is here and now, always. God can be trusted as the One who created me in love, and I'm capable of trusting God as one created in God's likeness and image.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, June 30

Matthew 10:40-42

10:40 "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."


As Jesus continues the instructions to those he is sending out, there’s an eerie parallel with Matthew 25: 35, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

It’s easy to overlook the act of welcoming another into our lives. The twist is that the immediate presence of Jesus Christ is the One being welcomed.

How different would my life be if I reflected on this amazing teaching? What if i made room for this Jesus? The message of God’s in-breaking kingdom is matched with how i welcome others into my life.

Choices are made in light of the Christ who is here and now, embodied in those welcomed. Not in terms of my convenience or preference or privilege.  

The examples of receiving a prophet and giving a cup of cold water could relate to experiences of missionaries prior to Matthew’s Gospel. Did he look at examples of welcome and hostility to Paul and his message? 

Welcoming others in the name of another prophet or disciple was the practice of the earliest church , witness the story of Paul and Ananias in Acts 9. In this case Ananias may have become the disciple vouching for Paul, the disciple in whose name Paul is welcomed by the church. 

Jesus sometimes called his followers “little ones.” They are not, in this context, the privileged few. Those at the top of the food chain “have their reward,” but those making welcome for the little ones will find a different kind of reward, one that comes in almost invisible acts of kindness and welcome. *

What could possibly be the “reward” for welcoming  “little ones,” or Christ, or God!?** Integrity. I get to fulfill my ministry and calling. I live into my purpose and potential as a human being, made in God’s image and likeness. I don’t have to honor the animal, instinctual brain. I can choose! 

This welcoming, receiving, and giving are their own reward, ends in themselves, and nothing more or less. Sounds like a chance for both inner and outer repentance and change. 

Repentance offers the church -which is anyone who claims Christ’s name- a chance to live by the alternative vision of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom announced in Jesus and his missioners prizes actual welcome, receiving and sharing. Words just sugar coat the real failures and the positive hindrances I have created and perpetuate for others.  For preachers and teachers, our words are empty if the repentance and alternative are not explicitly presented for others to hear.

Without repentance I do not change and without change, there is only the default of flying to Jesus but silencing his words of welcoming, receiving, and sharing his kingdom.

*For hypocrites having their reward, see Matthew 6:1-2, 5, 16

**See the many references to “little ones” in Albert Nolan’s classic, Jesus Before Christianity (1976, 2001).

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, June 25

Matthew 10:24-39

10:24  "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

10:32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;

10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

10:34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

10:35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

10:36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.

10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Reflection: More Words of Warning to Church Leaders
This week's reading adds more cautions for those proclaiming God's kingdom. Remember that Matthew regarded the teaching of Jesus as revelatory, comparable to the Torah, revealed by God through Moses.

The Gospel does not need special cover of darkness or whispering tones. Its validity is not due to its popularity. The temptation is to find what sells and do it. This may be peculiar to my context of American consumerism, but still, this approach does not always encourage the freedom for people to choose the alternative vision of Jesus Christ, his new way of loving and living. 

I can't expect that people will be handing out silver stars or accolades for my ministry. The message will be received as Jesus was received. Given the message (see Matthew 5-7),  there will be harsh resistance. People I thought I trusted will become adversaries.* Instead I need to trust that God, the Lord of all the powers in the universe and the Giver of life- knows and cares for me.

Not everyone resisted the message, but many did. Not everyone who was faithful died as a martyr. After all, how was the message to survive if everyone was martyred? Thus, the church understood taking up the cross in other ways, such as faith, patience and endurance amidst evil. Churches also realized the importance of "white martyrdom," that is, the purity of total commitment to the way of Christ and renunciation of empires that actively and violently stood against God's kingdom and rule.  

About worthiness: here's the definition from Cambridge Dictionary: "deserving respect, admiration, or support." Worthy is translated as "fit" in the CEV and the GNT. Fitness has an entirely different connotation. Is Jesus shaming people for their unworthiness? In context, these verses are warnings to the teachers and preachers (and Matthew's church leaders?). They are not intended to shame or diminish people, but to lay out, truthfully, who and who is not well equipped or able to do the job. I believe Jesus' instructions came as warnings, akin to "If you're not able to last in this ministry, get out while you can."

The brutal truth is that I have both denied Christ and refused the cross in word and action.** There are also times when I have confessed Christ and avoided becoming a total hypocrite. I am a mixed bag, just like everyone I have taught or will teach. The object isn't to measure unfaithfulness. The point is to gladly proclaim God's kingdom and to invite others to make faith choices, all because God reigns, now and forever. 

*Consider this blessing: May God grant you the gift of knowing who your true friends are.
**Denial could have been an official proceeding of the state, one that included a three-fold denial, including a pledge to worship the gods of the Empire. The three-fold denial was required in case the accused decided to "repent" of being a Christian and thus save themselves from execution. See E. Boring, Revelation, 1989, pp.14-15. Even though Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus apparently does not excommunicate Peter from the disciples. See especially Luke 22:31-34 and John 21:15-19. 

Oldies but Goodies