Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the month “July, 2011”

A Seed, A Bit of Yeast, a Pearl and You’ve Got a Kingdom

It’s all about small things, insignificant things, becoming great: a mustard seed, yeast, something hidden, something sought, faith, the body of Christ, and love; it’s about priorities – taking the treasures the Kingdom of Heaven affords over those on earth.

Life comes from a spark of almost nothing and becomes something extraordinary.  The arrival of the reign of God – the greatest event in the history of creation is a work with beginnings so small as to seem hardly perceptible.  Phenomenal results from seemingly insignificant beginnings.

We have today the second of three lections from Matthew 13 consisting of parables, the third major body of Jesus’ teachings found in this Gospel, the first being the Sermon on the Mount and the other, the Mission Charge.

Okay, so what’s a parable?

It’s a tool for teaching that Jesus used – they are powerful, because what stays in the memory better than a good story?

But these are stories that allow the listener to teach themselves. Jesus’ parables are disorienting; they turn society as we know it inside out and upside down, takes us out of the predictable and comfortable and challenges us to look deeper, closer.

Let’s put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals for a moment.  He’s trying to explain to his twelve best friends this different way of thinking, of being, of living.  It’s not an idea but a real concept.  They, and we, can be dense – okay?  Every day living with its challenges, joys, intrigues, the nine to five rat race that you and I run, catch us up and that’s all we know.   Jesus wants us to step away from that life and try the life he’s offering.  But we don’t get it.  Sometimes it can be painfully impossible to even think of looking at the world through a different lens, let alone understand.

To help us along, move us away from the life we know all too well, Jesus applies the parable:  sometimes they are little stories, such as those in this part of Matthew, or we get an epic tale, such as the Prodigal Son.  In any case, these stories and vignettes, these images show us what’s hidden behind the usual way we look at things and think about them.

And Jesus, realizing that people just didn’t get it, tried something and it worked.  He spelled it out in terms and language the audience can understand.

He showed them images and lo, we got it!

The Kingdom of Heaven is like…

Well, what is this Kingdom and what is it like?

We hear and read the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven,” or “the Kingdom of God” is near, at hand.  Jesus used it over and over to drive home the message that a new world order had arrived.   To the merchant sitting in the Jerusalem market square, or the scribe in the Temple, the kingdom meant a temporal lord, a sovereign.  But that isn’t what Jesus meant – I believe he meant that the kingdom was deep within the heart and mind, and it came with a new way of thinking, of living.  It was what Jesus preached: loving one another as God loved all that was created, holding respect for one another and creation, a belief that with God nothing is impossible, and it affords equality and justice.  All are welcome who believe.

To get people to understand this, and to accept it, Jesus showed his audience then and now what it would be like with subject matter equally familiar.  A gardener could understand the mustard seed.  In a single season a tiny seed
becomes a shrub with branches large and strong enough for birds to roost in them.  Now apply that to Jesus and his
disciples.  They travel the length of Judea spreading the good news – the seed is planted.  One neighbor tells another, and another, and soon the movement grows, flowering, branching out.

The same could be said of the leaven the wife uses to make the dough rise.  There is rapid growth from beginnings that
are hardly significant: a bit of yeast is mixed in warm water, then with flour and left for an hour or two – the dough rises out of the bowl.  The message of this parable is that just as a tiny lump of leaven, or yeast, can enlarge a basin of dough, so will the ministry of Christ, and ministries given to us in Christ, expand and encourage a new world vision and reality with results greater in proportion to its present size.

The shrub the seed became continues to grow and the bread becomes more nourishing.  These are analogies to our faith and our  community – the church.

Belonging to this community, however, comes with responsibilities.

God’s kingdom has infinite value – no rust or moths will destroy its treasure.  Weeds do not grow among the sheaves of wheat.  Jesus gives us two more parables and these concern the kingdom’s value over our workaday values: first, the treasure hidden in the field.  People hide their valuable possessions to keep them safe from theft.  In centuries past, they buried them where they thought no one could find them – and hopefully they remembered where the
valuables were placed.  Here, we have a treasure found by accident and the one who found it is so overjoyed that he
sells everything, maybe even the treasure to buy the field.  And then we have the parable of the
pearl.  The merchant intentionally seeks the one, exquisite pearl and gives up everything he has for it.  The message in both of these parables is that God’s kingdom is a prize beyond comparison of any jewel or good fortune we can
imagine.  We are encouraged to reevaluate what is truly valuable to us.

Finally, we come to the last parables in this chapter – one stressing God as the ultimate judge and arbiter, and the other showing us that old and the new both are welcome in the kingdom.  As fishermen sort their catch between consumable and non-consumable, so too will God sort out people – but it will be God who judges between the true and the false.  Jesus concludes his teaching in this part of the Gospel by saying that those who understand Mosaic law as well as what is new in his teachings are like masters who bring out both new and old treasures – both have a place and both should be honored.

As in the first century, these stories have life and meaning today, in a time where values continually shift from seeking the greater good to acquiring greater goods.  Today, especially today in light of Friday’s horrific event in Norway, we should be ready, willing, and able, be equal to the challenge and task of planting seeds of faith and love and show the
world that we are advocates of equality and justice, that we espouse love and fellowship.  What we can do is accept this incredible place, this Kingdom that God offers to us in Christ.

Dare we believe that such a life exists for us in the Kingdom?  Yes.   Can we get gleeful and excited about what Jesus promises?  Certainly!   Is it ours to take, this life, filled with such promise, such joy, such confidence, such power, such possibility?  Again, I tell you, yes.  Because my friends, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where seeds of faith are planted daily, where faith grows as easily as leaven mixed in with flour, where one’s good deeds and right action taken to make the world a better place for all are pearls of exquisite value and where nothing now or in the future can separate us from the love of God.

Stone Soup

Do you remember the folk tale, Stone Soup?

A stranger enters a a village in the dead of winter with a pot slung over his back; he sets up a fire in the market square and drops a pebble into the pot, adds water, and . .
. . nothing!

An old woman watches him from her window, as do most of the villagers, I guess, and while he stirs the water, he wishes aloud that he had a turnip to improve the flavor of the broth.  The old woman she thinks she has a turnip
past its expiration date somewhere in the vegetable bin, and there it is.  She tosses it in the pot.  He thanks her, adding that the perfect thing to compliment a stone and turnip would be a carrot, a few more vegetables.  Miraculously, the old woman just happens to have a soft onion somewhere – the skin needed to be peeled back and the bad parts cut off, but it would do, wouldn’t it?  And the carrots – well, her old pony won’t mind giving them up, there’d be more tomorrow.  The onion is joined by a bit of meat, a potato, some chicken bones for flavor – the ones you save to make stock with.  Neighbors come by when the good smell of broth simmering drifts through the village; they dig around in their kitchens and drop something they just happen to find in a cupboard or in a bag or barrel, until everyone gathers around to enjoy a wonderful, hearty, meal – all from a pebble and some water.

Somewhere in the story, did you hear Jesus whispering, “You give them something to eat?”

I used this folk tale because the characters and the plot reminded me of Matthew 14:18-21; it’s an example of how God works by faith and action.  The Gospel acts out the parables in Chapter 13 – the loaves and fishes are like a mustard seed – a little goes a long way; they’re like leaven hidden in the loaf; the Disciples fail to recognize the food hiding almost secretly in the midst of the crowd.

The stranger gets people to act by invitation and necessity; Jesus acts out of compassion and asks the Disciples to do the same.  The crowds need not go away, the Disciples have food; they will give the crowds their supper.  When they opened up their lunch boxes and found five loaves of bread and two fish.  They’d need more than that to feed over five
thousand people.  Maybe they scratched their heads and looked at each other – you know, that look when everyone but the person asking the question thinks he or she is right.  One can only imagine what Peter was thinking – or saying.  But let’s give a back story to this scripture.  This event follows the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday feast – a bit different than the feast described here in Chapter 14.  Jesus has spent the day preaching – perhaps one of the longest sermons ever offered, and, he’s been healing all those people.  When he learns of John the Baptist’s death, he goes off by himself – and the crowds follow; they just won’t go home.  Matthew’s text doesn’t state that the crowd was hungry and wanted something to eat, but it does say that the disciples wanted the people to go away and find their supper elsewhere.  Here we have one of those moments when being disciples of Christ, of being members of the Body, seems utterly impossible or hopeless, and we look to the pragmatic, the logical, what’s in front of our noses for answers.

So Jesus tells the disciples not only what they do not want to hear, but what they cannot fathom:  “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  Rather than argue the point further, the disciples give Jesus the loaves and fishes.  Jesus looked to heaven and took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who in turn gave the bread to the crowds.  There was plenty to eat, everyone was fed, and there were leftovers.

This miraculous feeding is repeated in all of the gospels and that very fact is evidence of the importance of this story to the early Christians as it should be to Christians now: it is the foretaste of the Last Supper and gives us elements of the
Eucharist in the orderly arrangement of people, the prayer of blessing, the act of breaking bread and the distribution of the bread to all assembled.  It is a call to community.  The Table has become more than just an outward and visible sign of Christ’s compassion.  Fed at Christ’s Table, we the faithful work and serve in a world where sharing our resources, our ministries is one way to express our willingness to believe, to take chances against the norm and live
and proclaim the Gospel.

What we should note here is not only the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but the call to action and mission.

Jesus sent The Twelve out with authority to teach, preach, heal, and we see it at work as they distribute the bread and the fish.  They are models for us as they follow the instructions Jesus gives – no matter how impossible it may seem.  Perhaps the miracle is that when we trust in the love of God through Christ, completely give ourselves over to that love, we can make things that seem impossible very real in our lives and the lives of those we touch.

A stranger comes to town and invites the people to share a soup they make together – from very little comes an abundance of food and love.   The disciples’ five loaves and two fish seem to be lacking in quantity, yet over five thousand people had their fill.  No one was turned away.  There is enough of God’s love to go around.

And now, my friends, I invite you to join me at the Table on any Sunday, and you will have something to eat.  It is only a little bit of bread and wine, but it is so much more.

c 2011, Rev. Ellen Ekstrom

Taking Comfort

I find the Gospel in Matthew 10:10-42 comforting. Jesus tells the Apostles who have left their family to follow him they will have a family within the church community. There is a reward for discipleship. It doesn’t come in money or goods, but in real treasure – eternal life with Christ as God’s free gift of grace. How we enact the call to discipleship varies. Let me give you an example.
I’ve told this story before; perhaps you heard it the first time, but it bears repeating. It is a lesson in discipleship.
In the winter of 1968, my mother had saved up enough money to rent a large house in a rural part of El Sobrante – it was off the main road and up on a hill almost in the middle of nowhere. We thought it was an adventure and wonderful after living in a housing project apartment.
One night in February of 1969, my mother had gone to work on the late shift at the hospital and my sister Kathy and I were left to watch the younger children. Late in the evening the doorbell rang. We thought it was Mom coming home because she forgot something, but it was a man – a stranger. He said he was trying to get to San Francisco to work at the docks. He had a job waiting. He wanted to know if we could give him something to eat, maybe give him some money for bus fare. Kathy and I stood at the door, wondering what to do, mostly frozen by fear. We had broken our mother’s strict rule not to open the door after dark and especially to strangers.  Now, we had a fresh supply of groceries in the house because it was payday and we were particularly happy because Mom bought an unexpected treat – packets of Hostess cupcakes and a box of Hostess fruit pies from the day-old bakery. That was on my mind, and I found out later it was on hers, too. It was a moment before Kathy whispered, “Come with me.” We told the man to wait on the porch, slammed the door shut and locked it, and I followed her into the kitchen and we made sandwiches, found an old thermos and poured some coffee, threw some fruit and some of our prized Hostess cupcakes into a bag with the sandwiches. Kathy handed off the bag and some money she’d taken out of her wallet to the man and said, “God bless.” He said “God bless” and went on his way.  Kathy slammed the door shut.
I’ve never forgotten that night for many reasons – and not because we didn’t get in trouble for opening the door to a stranger or sharing what little we had with that stranger, or my sister’s generosity, but she said “God bless,” to a stranger, and he said it back.

What I didn’t know at that time was that my sister was doing what Christ wants all of us to do. She did what Jesus asks of every person who calls themselves a Christian.

She was welcoming. She was generous and loving – and the icing on the cake was that she asked God’s blessing for him.

Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that whoever welcomes a prophet or, little one, welcomes him.
We know from history and scripture that prophets are those noisy, confrontational types, who tell us truths we don’t want to hear, and they don’t make the best of ends, but they open our hearts and minds to reality and how things are supposed to be. Think of Jesus, John the Baptist, Stephen, Perpetua and her companions, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt. Little ones aren’t necessarily children. They might be people outside our personal circles of friends and fellow Christians, or people outside of the norm of society, what we might call the ‘fringe element.’ They may be the people on the bus or train, in line at a Starbucks or Safeway, or a visitor to the church who happened to walk by and come in for a service – we had such visitors two weeks ago. And they are you and me.
This brief lesson from the Gospel brings attention to the demands of following God’s call. Throughout Matthew’s missionary discourse, Jesus tells of the rewards we can expect. We know that as the Apostles carried out their mission, they were rejected in some places but welcomed in others. They travelled as emissaries of Jesus, and thus, those who welcomed the Apostles welcomed Jesus and welcomed God. This comes from the tradition that accepting a king’s emissary is the same as welcoming the king. There are rewards for receiving Apostles, prophets, righteous persons and little ones. Prophets are those who speak for God. To welcome a prophet is to receive the prophet’s reward – God’s free gift of grace. Righteous people are people mature in faith and living in obedience to God. To welcome a righteous person is to reap the reward of the righteous – again, God’s free gift of grace. And little ones. Here, I use the term as it would apply to all people, and thus, the simple, loving gesture of giving even a cup of water in the name of a disciple is important. It is important because even the smallest act of kindness is recognized by God. It is always tempting to think that the most heroic the service the greater the reward in Christian life, but Jesus here insists that God’s reward is not graded. There’s no chart with stars next to names, nor there are report cards – A’s for prophets; B’s for righteous people, and C’s for little ones and the rest of us. God’s reward is entirely generous and gracious.
We are asked to welcome little ones, make them a part of our community, give to them as Jesus would give to us. It’s not hard to be welcoming. Giving a cup of water to a little one, or a hot meal to someone who’s hungry, offering a sweater or blanket to someone who needs comfort, or listening, really listening, to a message offered by a prophet – or someone who needs a sympathetic and compassionate ear – that’s easy enough. Doing it because we love God and we want to live out the Gospel – now that’s the ticket. We may be prophets, righteous people or little ones. They are you and me, or what we aspire to, in a covenant with God and Jesus. We are chosen, called, tested – sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, but I say to you, there’s always another chance to get it right – the right way that God wants us to take as far as we can to the best of our abilities. Prophets, righteous people and little ones are people who say yes to God, even when it’s the most difficult thing they have to do in their lives.
And no matter who we are and what we chose to do with our callings, God loves us and welcomes all of us into the Kingdom.
Take comfort in that.

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