As we will see from today’s reading, Jesus doesn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. Instead, he wants us to look at our own spiritual journey and our own relationship with God…and not to worry or to compare ourselves to others.
So he gives us this parable to ponder. (read the full version of Matthew 20:1-16 here)
...But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” - Matthew 20:1-16 -
It’s probably safe to say, Jesus isn’t that concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations. He doesn’t seem to care who did what or who got to what place first. In fact, “the boss’s actions in this parable contradicts everything we know about employee motivation and fair compensation.” (Yancey)
But if you’ve been paying attention the last couple of weeks, you might recall me saying God’s economy doesn’t run like ours. For that we all should be grateful. This story makes it very clear that God isn’t fair. At least not like we define fairness.
Here we have the owner of a vineyard that needs to have its fruit harvested. So, he goes out and gathers the workers to do the job. Some clock in at sunrise. Others after the morning coffee break. And some come after lunch. It’s still not enough, so he goes out and hires more workers in the afternoon. And then a few more who start near quitting time.
Everyone seems happy and content to have been hired. No one grumbles about the work they’ve been employed to do. That is until payroll. Those who were first hired, the one’s who put in a full day’s work in the hot blazing sun, naturally complain when they learn their paycheck is the same as those who barely had time to break a sweat.
It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? More than just basic mathematics, or incompetent bookkeeping, something in our gut says this is wrong. It’s not fair. We know in our heart that some things ought to be fair - like education and civil rights. But when it comes to money, or something we believe we’ve earned, well…that’s when things get a little more personal.
I have been told all my life if you want something you got to work for it. And that the harder you work, the greater the reward will be at the end. At the last ad agency, I was at, I worked three months straight to help keep the company afloat during a recession. I really believed that the sacrifices I made to my family for that job, would be well compensated if we succeeded. Which we did.
At the end of the year, we managed to keep the doors open. And with my help we even eked out a profit. That year I got an unexpected bonus. A $25 gift card to Best Buy. The same as everyone else; except for the few at the top whose jobs we had saved.
Yeah, it’s not fair. But sometimes that’s a good thing. That crappy bonus was a tipping point for me. First, it helped me realize that life is too short to burnout at work. No longer did I “live to work” but instead “worked to live.” I put my family first again, instead of someone’s profit margin.
Second, that crappy bonus led me into the vineyard where I found a new job…and a new salary. It didn’t take long for me to see that this heavenly kingdom doesn’t run on our economic standards of fair pay for fair work. It runs on God’s economy. And God’s definition of fairness.
God affirms our worth. And God alone guarantees our value. It has nothing to do with who we are or what we have done or can do. It’s based solely on who God is, and what God has done for us through Christ Jesus.
Through him, God became one like us so we could see, and feel, and experience God’s unconditional love in the flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection remind us that God’s generosity is beyond our human capacity and logic.
It might not seem fair that each worker gets the same paycheck. But from God’s point of view, it’s not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It’s not even a matter of deserving or undeserving. It’s about God and what God chooses to do for us - despite all that we have done or left undone.
As Ken Kesselus puts it, “Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.”
In this parable the boss isn’t breaking his agreement with his employees. He’s actually upholding it honestly and fairly. By paying everyone a full day’s wage we realize that God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God gives us simply what we need.
In his great book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey reminds us that at the end of the day, “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”
Whether you’ve been faithful to God your whole life, or you’re new to the party, God loves you and welcomes you just the same. There are some Christians who might be thinking that’s not fair. You spent your time loving God, loving others, and serving both while other people were being sinful. Yeah, It’s not fair. That’s the point of this parable.
Imagine how those last workers felt when someone finally hired them. Imagine standing around all day not knowing if you will make any money for rent muchless food. I suspect they are paid first, because they are able to receive their wages with joy and gratitude – not with envy or pettiness.
When you’re the one on the receiving end of God’s generosity and goodness it’s easy to feel grateful. But shouldn’t we also feel the same when someone else finally comes joins us in the vineyard?
All that we have, all that we’ve been given in this space we call Anamesa, is a gift from God. And whatever God wants to give us will l always be more than we deserve. So yeah, it’s not fair. And thank God for that. Because we are recipients of that generosity too.
God is a lousy bookkeeper. Handing out envelopes stuffed full of infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness. Infinite life. It doesn’t matter who is first or who is last. It doesn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, who you love or the color of your skin. Christ died for all. Which is our proof that God is faithful and generous to all, if only because there’s still more work to be done.
Five times the vineyard owner goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. But here’s the thing to remember: God leaves it up to us to come in and get our hands dirty.
This parable makes it abundantly clear that it’s not about who is worthy but who is willing.
Who’s willing to be the face of Christ for others to see their worth in God’s eyes?
Who is willing to be the hands of Christ so others can feel God’s mercy in the flesh?
Who is willing to be the heart of Christ, to love and forgive those who society says don’t deserve it?
Who is willing to go and do the work of this heavenly kingdom - planting and growing and harvesting the fruits of God’s glory until Christ comes again to give us our final paycheck?
We can’t calcolate God’s love on a timesheet. That gift isn’t a bonus reward based on merit, or the quality or quantity of one’s labor. It’s just it’s just something God gives freely to everyone who chooses to go into the vineyard. So, who here is willing to join me?
Adapted from original sermon Work To Be Done on September 1, 2019 (accessed on 09-21-2023).
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
Gonzalez, Justo. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes. (Nashville: Abington, 1996) pp. 62-63.
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
Kesselus, Ken. An Undeserved Gift. September 21, 2014 (accessed on 09-21-2023).
Up to that point, I’d been carrying around so much anger and rage that my capacity to love had waned. Yet I knew only way for me to be free from that burden was to get it all go. Which meant, I had to forgive her. Just forgive.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. And we all love poorly.”
If we want to follow Jesus, we have to truly love like he does. Which means we have to forgive like he did. That’s never as easy as it sounds.
As every great athlete knows, success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of practice and struggle to get to the top. We must remember that to be forgiving like Christ requires constant focus, and a willingness to do it over and over again until it becomes as natural to us as breathing. I think this is exactly what Jesus is encouraging in our reading today from Matthew 18.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22.
In our world, to forgive a person once is an acceptable gesture. But to forgive someone repeatedly is often frown upon and thought of as irresponsible or even self-harming.
Using the Rabbinic scales of mercy, which requires a person to forgive another four times, Peter pushed this notion further - suggesting seven times. Maybe he was trying to impress Jesus or show the other disciples how much better he was than the rabbis.
But Jesus isn’t having any of that. He seems to be saying err on the side of caution and forgive a person seventy-seven times.
New Testament scholars will debate whether the Greek should be translated as “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” Either way, it’s an enormous number; one so big that we can’t begin to calculate it.I suspect that’s the point.
Jesus is reminding us that forgiveness isn’t absolute like math. There is no perfect set amount because each act of forgiveness has its own set of problems and calculations.
In fact, the only specification for forgiveness is to make the deliberate decision to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution towards any person you believe has wronged you. Again, sounds easier than it is. And yet, it’s not impossible.
You might remember that in 2006, a Pennsylvania man shot up an Amish schoolroom, killing five schoolgirls and wounding 11 others. This kind of stuff seems ordinary these days. But what should be ordinary is the way the Amish community reacted to this senseless act of violence.
While they were mourning their own children, the parents of the victims not only forgave the shooter, but also went to his house to comfort his mother because she too had lost her child that day.
We saw something similar when another young man walked into a historic black church in South Carolina and murdered nine people who had welcomed him into their bible study. At his bond hearing, five survivors faced the killer and forgave him.
And then there’s the story of the Korean pastor Yang-Won Sohn. After his two teenage boys were murdered because of their Christian faith, Yang-Won chose to follow Christ instead of the anger in his heart. Not only did he forgive the murderer, but he arranged his release from prison and adopted him as his own son.
You might be thinking “I couldn’t do that. I know I’m supposed to forgive but there must be a limit, right?”
According to Jesus, the only limit is to forgive as many times as it takes to love that person again.
Jesus is not telling us to condone bad behavior or continue in an unhealthy relationship. He says, just forgive them as much as God forgives you.
In the following verses he gives this parable to make his point.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:23-35
I always like to remind people that Jesus uses parables to talk about the kingdom of heaven. Which means it’s more about God, and less about us. Here we have a servant who owes his boss ten thousand talents. I’m told a single talent is equivalent to 15 years’ worth of wages. Do the math. Take all the money you’ve earned over the last 15 years and multiply it by 10,000.
Again, Jesus uses another ridiculous number because it’s not about the amount. It’s about our willingness to do what God asks of us each and every time. It’s not the counting but the giving of our heart that makes the kingdom of heaven come alive.
This kingdom runs on God’s economy, not ours. God is the bookkeeper. And God doesn’t look at numbers, God looks at the heart. Scripture reminds us that God loves a penitent and contrite heart. More importantly, God loves you more than any offense you may have done. When we seek forgiveness from God, we are given forgiveness from God.
This is what’s called grace. The grace that is offered by God through Christ, is given free of charge to anyone who wants it. It’s free because it’s impossible to repay. And since God’s grace is impossible to pay back…Jesus tells us to pay it forward.
In the parable, the servant is shown mercy, but he himself refuses to be merciful. And in the end, Jesus said he will get what he gives.
Jesus takes the business of forgiveness very seriously. And so must we. To quote C.S. Lewis “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
You may not have murdered innocent school children, but as Paul writes, “there is no distinction. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And yet, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Maybe there is someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe you have a friend who hurt you with something he said or did that has made you angry.
Maybe someone close to you has wounded you so dearly that the very idea of facing her, muchless offering forgiveness, sickens you.
Maybe it wasn’t one big thing that someone did, but hundreds of tiny annoying things that have been building up like a cancerous wall inside you.
Maybe the person who needs forgiving is you. Maybe you did something that hurt another and you’ve been holding on that shame and guilt, and it’s eating you up inside.
In my experience, personal forgiveness is the hardest. Which might explain why Jesus wants us to do it a ridiculous amount of times because there’s a good chance you’re not going to get it right the first time.
The more we forgive the more it becomes a part of who we are. It becomes our go-to action instead of reacting in ways that continue the cycle of violence, hatred and bigotry.
As I sat in my car in the parking lot thinking about all the pain and suffering that person put me through, the loss of a good job, a nice salary, and of my fragile faith I had to make a choice. Hold on to the anger or let it go.
In that moment I prayed, not for my forgiveness, but for God to forgive her. And in that prayer I added, “because God, I have forgiven her.”
We can’t control what people do to us. We can only control how we respond.
Jesus taught us to forgive one another as God has forgiven you. It’s the same equation used for love - Love one another as God loves you.
This math applies to everything we do. As it’s written, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” At Anamesa we take that to mean love God, love others, and serve both.
So, if we choose to follow the Way of Jesus, through whom God has shown us the ultimate image of love and forgiveness, than we must be willing to do the same for one another, no matter how many times it requires.
To not forgive, be it once or seventy-seven times, is to deny the power of Christ who, on his cross, took our sins upon himself to reconcile us back to God.
We might think it’s just forgiveness. But it’s an action and power we possess that has eternal consequences.
As we leave here today, let us not forget that it’s in our own forgiveness we meet the glory of God.
And so it is also in our forgiving one another that God’s glory moves through us so that everyone gets a foretaste of what is to come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Excerpts from an original sermonI Am Forgiveness. September 13, 2020 (accessed on September 14, 2023).
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 68-73.
Pagano, Joseph S. Forgiveness. September 7, 2020. (accessed September 14, 2023).
West, Cindi. Forgive Someone Seventy Times Seven. July 1, 2019. (accessed September 11, 2020).
In the last church I served, there was someone who made my job impossible to do. It was killing my spirit to continue to do what God had called me to do. Knowing what I was going through emotionally and spiritually, a concerned friend put me in touch with someone who had just experienced a very similar situation.
That person was Rev. Dawn. In that space between Los Angeles and Terra Haute, God met us in our pain and anguish. And led us to a place of joy and flourishing. This is the place we call Anamesa. The sacred and holy space where God comes to reconcile our hearts and tend to our wounds.
Today’s reading comes from a place in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus gives us some pretty basic things to know about being the church. Things like be humble as a child, be caretakers for one another, don’t do anything that would be a stumbling block to someone’s faith, forgive one another endlessly and look out for those who have strayed away or gotten lost.
In the middle of this list, Jesus offers up this “how-to guide” for reconciling with someone in the church who has wronged you. Here's what he had to say:
It’s easy to imagine why this passage is so popular among new churches as they develop their polity and practices. Like I said, the church is made up of humans which means there will be conflict and disagreements.
Although I’m sure Jesus wishes that didn’t happen, he doesn’t pretend it won’t. So he gives us this short check list to help us deal with the issue when someone in the church does or says something hurtful.
Step one, use direct and respectful communication to the person who has offended you. Don’t go to five or six of your closest friends and talk behind his or her back. Instead, engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one and let them know what they did.
If that conversation does not yield good fruit, go to step two. Try again with a small group to make sure there isn’t misinterpretation or gaslighting. If there is still no progress, then move on to step three which is invite the entire church community to search for a solution.
There’s no guarantee that this will work perfectly, or at all. The times I caught an employee at my last church spreading damaging lies and rumors about me, I applied these first three steps.
When all our efforts failed to produce any changes of behavior, I was ready to implement the fourth and final step where Jesus says, “When all else fails, treat that person like a Gentile and a tax collector.”
watch video message here
Up until that point, I believed this meant I had permission to fire and shun, and even excommunicate this troublemaker. Since our church polity didn’t allow me to do that, I was forced to leave the congregation I loved in order to save my reputation.
This destroyed my heart, my faith, and my security. But did nothing to change the behavior of the other person because it happened again with the next minister.
Having spent the next couple of years nursing my wounds here in what I have come to call Anamesa, I realized I’d misunderstood this passage and Jesus completely. I mean, look at how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors.
He never shamed or shunned them. Instead, he loved them and heaped mercy and grace upon them. He invited them to share in his ministry, like he did with Matthew, the tax collector turned Apostle.
Jesus always interacted with others and welcomed everyone with an open and loving heart. Even those who betrayed and killed him. This can be hard to do when you are hurting, frustrated, and angry like I was. And yet, in the same passage I was using to judge someone, Jesus was telling me to treat that person with loving kindness because they too are made in God’s image.
Jesus’s mission was all about reconciliation – which is the entire point of Christmas and Easter stories. At every turn, Jesus extended himself graciously to all people. He never gave up on a person, never stopped reaching out to them with loving awareness. He always gave, and continues to give, grace upon grace to help us restore all that we have damaged and broken.
Jesus knows what humans are capable of. And he still loved us, no matter what. He also knows what God is capable of; believing there’s enough room in God’s heart for every human soul to flourish.
I think he believes there’s room in our hearts as well. Perhaps that’s why he sends us out into Anamesa to love God, love others, and serve both. And to do so in his name. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
That’s Anamesa in a nutshell. Being with the divine in the space between. It took having my heart and faith busted open to realize this. I had become blinded by my own frustration and pain that I couldn’t see how Jesus was there this whole time holding space between me and my offender.
Jesus is the one who stands in the space between heaven and earth, redeeming and restoring us; making us whole and complete with God and with one another.
Realizing this was a game changer for me. Not only did it help me find my peace but it helped me forgive those who had been a stumbling block to my faith.
Now here’s another thing I realized seeing this passage with new eyes. By my faith alone, I am the one who invites Jesus to dwell among us. Same is true with your faith.
In knowing he is there stretching out his arms out to embrace us both, we might be less inclined to fill that space with acts of violence, words of hatred, and thoughts of bias judgement.
Knowing that Jesus is everywhere our we are, should encourage us to seek and support a more just and fair society where those who are lost or marginalized and shunned have a real place at God’s table.
The way I see it, Jesus isn’t only giving us instructions to help us reconcile with others. He’s showing us a way to live in harmony with one another as well.
To know and see and act with Jesus in the space between is to discover, as Kellan Day so beautifully captures, “how the human and the divine collide, the earthly and the heavenly kiss.”
She goes on to write, “Our reconciliation serves a greater purpose; it will help us to learn to stand one another long enough that we might recognize Christ in one another’s faces. We are given this work so that we don’t give up on each other, and thus, give up on the body of Christ.”
At the end of the day, if we can’t forgive and reconcile like Jesus does, then how can we ever claim to be part of his holy body.
Just as heaven and earth dwell in the person of Jesus, so too must humanity and divinity dwell together in us, in Anamesa; where our earthly lives are graced with the presence of God, who is reconciling all things to one another and to God’s very self.
It only takes two or three gathered in Christ’s name to be his church, where he is truly present. And so it is the Christ who calls out to us to meet him in the middle, to see and recognize this sacred space for what it is.
A sanctuary where God comes to us in flesh and blood to love on us – whether we deserve it or not.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Day, Kellan. Reconciliation. September 4, 2023. (Accessed on 09-08-2023)
To most of us, what Jesus knows he has to do is not shocking news. It’s good news. We know what he means when he said, “on the third day, be raised.” But Peter and the gang haven’t read the gospel.
So, you got to hand it to him for having the guts to try to stop anything bad from happening to his beloved teacher. I mean, who among us has what it takes to rebuke Jesus to his face?
Writing on this passage, Eugene Peterson so poignantly stated, “We want to follow Jesus, but like Peter we also want to tell Jesus where to go. Jesus does not need our advice; he needs our faithful obedience.”
As so many of my atheist friends have pointed out, too many Christians like to talk the talk, but only a few are willing to walk the walk. They love to worship Jesus as long as they don’t have to do much more.
As I’ve pointed out before, nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say, “worship me.” Yet all throughout the gospels he says, “Follow me.” Watch what I do and do that.
And “From this time on, Jesus began to show his disciples…” what that entails – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, showing compassion, mercy and forgiveness. He shows the Twelve how to be the perfect embodiment of the gospel, no matter the cost. What they will discover is that real change begins with making hard and difficult sacrifices.
We have all made sacrifices… for our kids, our parents, our jobs, etc. I can’t even imagine the sacrifices my wife has made by being married to me. But all kidding aside, that’s not the kind of stuff Jesus is talking about.
It’s not so much about sacrificing dessert so you can lose a few pounds. It’s about denying oneself, for the sake of everyone else. Just as Jesus manifested divine love by sacrificing his own life, so too must we.
To gain the abundant and authentic life that Jesus offers, one must be willing to walk away from one’s self-centered ambitions, goals, and choices, if one is going to follow him truly and faithfully.
Of course, the ego doesn’t like that. In fact, it will fight hard against it. But for real transformation to happen, our heart must become one in Christ Jesus, who put aside his ego for the sake of others.
Likewise, we too must move beyond our need to be right or better than others. And the way we do that is to allow our hearts to lead the way. I think this is what it means when Jesus said, you have to deny yourself and pick up your cross.
He’s not talking about a literal cross, or a dogmatic type of cross. Jesus is talking about embracing his moral and ethical teachings, and becoming visible incarnation of God’s love, compassion, and justice in the world. And to faithfully embrace that life with your whole heart, including all the sacrifices and suffering you will endure.
We can’t call ourselves Christ followers if we are not going to actually follow his way of giving, healing, forgiving, or being.
We can’t claim his name if we are still holding on to past grudges, or ignoring another’s needs.
We can’t shine his true light if our hearts are full of darkness and deception. Jesus was pretty clear when he said, “Whoever wants to save their life will have to lose it.”
In what world does that make sense?
Paul would go on to write, “the message of the Cross seems like sheer madness. But to us who are being saved we know it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). And what is power of God if not love?
Jesus is our living example of how God’s love gives our sacrifice and suffering purpose. What we give up for others, and the suffering that may come, are keys to unlocking our true self and our true faith, because it requires us to put real trust in a God whose merciful grace overcomes death with life.
Jesus showed us that faithfulness is a daily sacrifice we all must make – a constant dying and resurrecting; always shedding the old as we step into the new. Giving up ourselves, our comforts and wants, might seem foolish or hard at first. But then we have to ask ourselves, “For what will it profit you to gain the world but lose your soul?”
We all have our cross to carry. As Henri Nouwen pointed out, “We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them, and even hate them. Or we can lift them up and follow Jesus who gives our suffering new life and new purpose.”
While the disciples are confused and scared, Jesus assures them that whatever they give up will pale in comparison to what they will gain: a foretaste of heaven, here and now. The same is true for all who choose to faithfully follow him.
Now let me say this. I’m not sure the disciples aren’t following Jesus to get a free pass into heaven or acceptance into angel university. To quote Shane Claiborne, “What good would Jesus’ wisdom be if it were meant only for the afterlife? How hard could it be to love our enemies in heaven?”
No, I believe the disciples are willing to risk losing their own lives to follow Jesus, because they know who Jesus really is. The Christ, God’s salvation and saving grace for the world. They have seen what God is capable of doing through him. And they want to be a part of that.
Jesus did not just speak about changes, cures, new life, he actually created them. He did not just forgive a person for what they did, he loved them and, in the process, transformed them, and their communities. Just as the power of God’s love moved through Jesus, so too does it move through us. (Nouwin)
If we dare to follow Christ, then our actions must be modeled after him; living without division between our words and our actions; loving without division between who deserves it and who does not.
If we live and love as Jesus taught, then our crosses will be easy to carry. If our actions are pure and purposeful like his then we too can transform ourselves and others, creating a more just and right world for all of God’s children.
For real transformation to happen, “Our faith must be alive. This implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Praying not just with hearts and minds, with our actions in the world.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)
This is what it means to be the church – to be the very incarnation of God’s love made manifest in all that we do. For real and authentic transformation to happen, in us and in the world, we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross. Our egos must step aside so our hearts can lead with purpose and passion.
I think this is what it means to love one another as God first loved us. At the end of the day, love is the ultimate cross we will bear. It’s the ultimate sacrifice we can make for, and with, and towards one another.
It’s a giving of one’s heart unselfishly that the world is able to see God in their midst. It’s in the way we love God, love others, and serve both that the kingdom of heaven comes alive right here, right now in Anamesa.
As Jesus moves towards Jerusalem, where he will endure real physical pain and suffering, the disciples will come to discover that this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final word. God does.
Thanks to God in Christ Jesus, we are Easter people. As Christ showed us on the cross with his own body and blood, out of the hardest sacrifice and the worst kind of suffering God brings new life. That has been the gospel message since the beginning. That God so loved the world, he would give his only begotten Son to become one with the world in order to redeem it back to God’s open and giving heart.
Peter would eventually discover the real power of living faithfully to this gospel, by living faithfully to God’s everlasting love in Christ Jesus.
He would go on to write, it is this love that “we have been given a new birth into a living hope; an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is in this love that we can rejoice, even if for a little while we have to suffer various trials. It is in this love that genuine faith will be praised, glorified, and honored when Jesus Christ is revealed” (c.f. 1 Peter 1:3-8).
And so in closing let me simply ask you the same question Jesus asked the Twelve.
What will you give in return for your life? What sacrifice will you make today, and tomorrow, and every day so that God’s glory will be made manifest and know in all that you do?
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Hahn, Thich Nhat. Living Buddah, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead, 1995.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread For the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Peterson, Eugene. A Year With Jesus: Daily Readings and Meditations. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006.
When Valjean is caught with the stolen goods, the bishop tells the authorities that he had given the items to his guest. To everyone’s surprise, he adds two valuable silver candlesticks to the loot.
Once the coast is clear, the bishop tells this unassuming hero to sell the goods and use the money to make a new life for himself. The rest of the book goes on the show how Valjean’s life was transformed by this one generous act of kindness and mercy.
In today’s reading, we see something similar when Jesus meets a woman who is at the end of her rope. And with just a little love thrown her way, Jesus is able to do this: (Read Matthew 15:21-28)
...Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that moment. Matthew 15:21-28
More than once in my life, I have uttered the words of this desperate mother, “Lord, have mercy.” In the Greek it’s, Kyrie Eleison.
If you grew up in the 80’s you might recognize this as the title to an album and hit song by Mr. Mister.
Or if you grew up in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, you probably sung it as a response during the prayers of petition.
If not that then most of us have shouted this phrase, often as a last and desperate plea for help.
In her book The Miracles of Jesus, Jessica LaGrone uncovers a commonality shared by all those who are healed by Jesus. They are all desperate. And that’s not such a bad thing. The way she sees it, “Desperation is a gift from God because it teaches us we can’t do this on our own.”
She writes, “We’re all in need of Jesus’ help, but the truth is it’s only the desperate who go looking for it. And they are the ones who receive it.”
More than a desperate mother running after Jesus for help, Matthew makes it a point to tell us this woman was also a Gentile. And not just any old Gentile but a Canaanite; a long standing enemy of Israel.
She’s so desperate for help that she ignores this bitter history as well as any religious boundaries and cultural rules concerning encounters between women and men. She knows she could suffer severe consequences just by shouting at a man in public. Not to mention, throwing herself at his feet when he ignored her.
Of course, this was no ordinary man either. Jesus was a very religious man. Whether or not his reputation had proceeded him, she knew he was no ordinary Rabbi.
While his own disciples had yet to fully realize who and what Jesus was, this desperate mother, who will do whatever it took to get his attention, yelled over the crowd: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Addressing Jesus as Lord could mean something as common as “sir.” But referring to him as Son of David, well that only points to a Christological title. Of all the people there, it was this desperate, Gentile, female, adversary who recognized Jesus for who he truly is: The Christ, Israel’s Messiah, God’s Salvation.
Once she saw Christ in her midst, she set aside centuries of animosity, pushed past every barrier, and ran after the one who came to redeem the world.
We have all been in desperate situations, and have even done some crazy things to get out of it. But this desperate mother’s actions beg the question: how quick are we in these situations, to recognize and seek the One who always meets us in our places of suffering and anguish?
Sadly, most of us don’t turn to Jesus until we have nothing left to lose. We make him our last resort when in fact, Jesus should always be our first.
William DuBose once wrote, “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the very person of the Spiritual Man…He is with us, near us and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord.”
Jesus might have come for his Jewish people, but this mother’s confession speaks volumes to the faith of those outside this circle. She recognized Jesus for who he was, and called out to him by name, knowing and believing he was the one who could restore her child to health.
When Jesus ignored and rejected her, she persisted with an unshakable conviction that the faithfulness of his God was enough to restore her daughter and save her family. Jesus saw this as faith. And immediately her daughter was healed.
Which is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas, this desperate outsider is “the forerunner of our faith.” And not just that, she also “teaches us how to speak” directly and honestly to the face of God’s infinite love.
And by his willingness to extend mercy to an enemy of his people, Jesus destroys the boundaries that separate us.
He shatters any notion that might suggests some people are worthy of God’s love while others aren’t. The sun shines on both the just and the unjust, so too does God's love flow over creation… without discrimination (c.f. Matthew 5:45).
In the vast expanse of God's heart, there is room for every soul to find solace and healing. Even the dogs.
No matter who you are, or where you’re from, or what you’ve done or left undone, Jesus believes no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s mercy and grace. The healing we need is as close as his name is in our heart and on our lips. For “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Mothers and mutts alike, everyone is worthy to come to God’s holy table where even the tiniest of scrapes has the power to heal and transform a person, a community, and all of creation.
Just as the bishop's act of mercy led to Valjean's transformation, our faith in Jesus has the power to bring healing and new life to anyone who wants it.
Whatever pain you are holding onto. Whatever suffering or anxieties you are facing, remember, there is nothing beyond the power of God’s mercy and love.
The gospels are full of stories like ours. A mother who is at the end of her rope. A leper cast out of his community and forced to die alone. A blind person begging for help. A criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross. Desperate as they were, each sought out Christ with their hearts, crying Kyrie Eleison.
Their stories remind us that during challenging times of uncertainty like we are facing today, God still hears our petitions. If only because God is faithful to a fault, coming to us in the flesh, to love us where we are.
So as we continue to struggle with navigating a new and changing world, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When we don’t know how to approach racial and gender inequality, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When family and friendships continue to erode from the divisiveness of our political climate, let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
When our sons and daughters are afraid to go to the mall, or the movies, or to school because it might put their life in harm’s way let us cry “Lord, have mercy.”
As millions of people around the world lack clean water, have inadequate health care, and suffer from malnutrition caused by famine and violent conflicts, let us cry out “Lord, have mercy.”
If there is something that you are facing today, something that you can’t seem to control or handle, I implore you to seek Jesus…and ask for mercy. For he is the one who said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
As Richard Helmer points out, the plea of this desperate woman from the wrong side of the tracks, is our reminder today that "anyone who is willing to struggle faithfully – even with God – will be healed. Her story is not about faith in what we deserve. But faith in the grace we need."
It’s about "an insistent, almost obnoxious faith, the kind that will continue to pursue truth even at the expense of all cultural and societal boundaries."
It’s about our "willingness to wrestle directly with a faithful God whose attention we can get, whose heart we can change, and whose head we can turn."
And most importantly, a faithful God whose mercy, love and grace is given freely and abundantly to anyone willing to call out, Kyrie Eleison.
Adapted from Kyrie Eleison...Sorry Mr. Mister on August 16, 2020.
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Helmer, Ricard E. Of Mice, Lions, and Dogs, Proper 15 (A), August 15, 1999 (accessed on August 26, 2023).
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Canterbury Classics, 1862.
LaGrone, Jessica. Desperation: What Miracles Are Made Of. April 16, 2019.
Pagano, Joseph. Borderlands. August 20, 2023 (accessed on August 25, 2023)
There is a Jewish proverb that states,“Before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.’” Of course to say are all made in God’s image, means everyone. Not some of us, but all of us. Jesus taught us to see the image of God in a person’s heart, not just because that’s where God is, but also because that’s where real transformation and redemption begins.
To recognize the divine in all people, and to be moved to act by this principle, is fundamental to following the way of Jesus. But here’s the thing, Jesus’ actions back up his words. So the question every Christian must answer is “Are my words and actions on the same page?”
If not, Jesus gives us this message from Matthew 15:1-20:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? .... You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ Jesus called the crowd to him and said, .... “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them….. the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts ... but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” Matthew’ 15:1-20
For most of my life, the Pharisees have always been portrayed as the antagonist in the gospels stories. They’re always made out to be the bad guys, because after all, Jesus is the good guy.
In today’s encounter, this group asks Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating…a law required of priest and not the people. We don’t know what happened that trigger the question. Maybe they’d been caught reaching into the olive jar with their grubby hands. Or maybe the Pharisees were fishing to see if Jesus’ teachings were aligned with their interpretation of scripture.
The majority of people who followed Jesus regarded him as a Rabbi, a teacher. So it wouldn’t have been that uncommon for the Pharisees - who where the keepers of the laws and traditions- to interact with Jesus to test his yoke, his teaching and interpretation of Scripture. Yet that didn’t seem to be their only motive.
Jesus knew exactly what they’re trying to do. They were using the laws to their advantage, and to try to entrap him as a means to make themselves look good before the crowd.
So Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees with a question based on God’s commandments that were given to all people to obey. He asks, “Why do you break and nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition?” Then, without missing a beat, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah charging his accusers of hypocrisy.
We might think Jesus turns to the crowd in order to shame the Pharisees. I think he did what he did to remind us all of our own failure of faithfulness.
Again, we’ve been taught to believe the Pharisees are the bad guys. They’re not. They've dedicated their entire lives to keep the commandments at the forefront of public life, because they know what has happened to the Jewish people in the past when they weren’t obedient.
We ought to be careful on judging them, or anyone else, because how many times have we thought we were honoring God with our hymns and prayers, and yet by manipulating scripture to favor our own opinions, or to make ourselves look better, actually fails to worship God.
In this story, Jesus is pretty much saying that honoring God isn’t about external rituals or proper interpretation of scripture. It’s about having and sharing a sincere and faithful heart.
As he tells the crowd, it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out. By this unsavory example, he shifts the focus from our outward appearances to the inward intentions and attitudes that drive our actions.
Clean hands aren’t the issue. God wants a clean heart.
Richard Rohr reminds us that “Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart.” As we see throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows us how love is the impetus of redeeming and restoring people and their communities. Love is way to healing and radical forgiveness.
The way we love and honor others says a lot about the health of the Body of Christ, because it reveals to the world how we love and honor our God.
By placing love for God and others at the forefront, Jesus shifts the focus from legalistic adherence to a more profound and transformative ethic - one that is centered on compassion, mercy, and grace as a way to engage with others, making the kingdom of heaven come to life in real time.
Again, God wants our hearts, not lip service. While eating with dirty hands might make a person physically sick, a dirty heart will make someone spiritually sick which can affect the entire community of believers.
We’ve seen this every time a leader of a church has a fall from grace, when they are caught with their dirty hands in the proverbial olive jar.
Our focus must first and foremost be on the heart. In Psalm 51, David prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Psalm 51:10)
In his epistles, Paul tells us to believe in the heart (Romans 10:9-10), sing from the heart (Colossians 3:16), obey from the heart (Romans 6:17; Ephesians 6:6), and give from the heart (2 Corinthians 9:7).
And of course it was Jesus who said, they will know you belong to me by the way you share your heart with each other (John 13:35).
Love begins in and proceeds from the heart. But so do our words, and all our other actions and interactions as well.
It’s easy to say we love God, love others, and serve both, but how do we make these seven words more than just a flowery way to describe our church?
How do we make them the actual foundational principles of our faith?
How can we transform them into an action plan that defines who we are rather than defile?
How can we embrace this ideal in such a way that we become more like Christ and less like Pharisees?
To love God like Jesus did involves cultivating a deep and personal relationship with the divine. By devoting our life to the teaching and commandments like Jesus did by adhering to the intent of the law and not merely the letter of it.
To love others like Jesus did requires treating everyone with the same compassion, kindness, respect, and empathy that you would want for yourself, regardless of who they are or what they believe.
And to serve both God and others like Jesus did…means putting his unconditional love into play. It’s about taking your time, talents, and resources to make a positive difference in the world.
Jesus called us to place love above the law. Which means whenever we step into Anamesa, that space between ourselves and others, we need to be mindful and present to needs of those around us.
We need to listen with an open heart and a non-critical attitude. We need to refrain from passing judgment on others based on their situation, choices, or circumstances.
We need to remember that when we say we love God, love others and serve both, we’re not just giving God a bunch of lip service. Instead, we are honoring God by speaking for those whose voices have been silenced; advocating justice for the mistreated and oppressed; and being the living incarnation of God’s compassion - all by engaging in the divine love that you were made from.
Our faith begins in the heart. So too does our real spiritual transformation. As we set our sights on following Jesus, let us set the intentions of our heart on imitating on the one who declared the greatest commandment in the law is this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it,” he said. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus will go on to pick up his cross and demonstrate that “There is no greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for others” (John 15:13).
Jesus showed us the way, which isn’t easy. But it’s not impossible either. It’s might seem scary because it exposes our heart and makes us vulnerable to hurt. But it is the way to redemption and transformation.
Which is why to show what we mean when we say to love God, love others, and serve both will always be greatest form of worship we can ever offer.
One of the greatest pleasures of possessing this faith I have is sharing it, as joyfully and recklessly as God has shared love with me. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Pleasure has no relish unless we share it.”
The universal mission of the Christian church is to do that – share God’s love with everyone. It sounds simple, and yet too many Christians still have trouble doing this. But here’s the thing, How will people know, that they are loved by God, if no one ever tells them or shows them what God’s love looks like?
As you can see this is a question the Apostle Paul asks in his prolific letter to the churches in Rome.
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim), because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved... For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
When Paul wrote this theological dissertation, he meant it to be shared among the many small house churches that were spreading like weeds throughout Rome.
Unlike us, these churches had to hide in the shadows - because confessing Jesus as Lord was a serious offense against Caesar. Paul knew what he was asking here was dangerous. He knew it could get them killed. But he also knew the power of God that was demonstrated at Jesus’ résurrection. And the fear of death no longer had a sting.
So Paul encourages the local churches to not only confess but to share what they believe to be true about the power of God’s redemptive love in Christ Jesus.
After all, he asks, “How will people know to call on him if they have never heard about him? How will they hear if no one proclaims him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
If we really believe, then we have to go out and share our faith with the world. Evangelism not an option, it’s our mission.
Sadly, the word “evangelism” has become a kind of dirty word these days. It’s often associated with people on the religious right who have weaponized the gospel for political gain.
Because of my upbringing, the word still makes me think of those angry fundamentalists who’d rather use the fear of Hell to make people obedient than to welcome someone with Christlike love. Which all seems a bit ironic considering the word literally means “to tell Good News.” Holding up signs that say “God hates” seems a little off brand.
(It’s also worth pointing out that the root word of evangelism is “angel.” If you ask me, the world could benefit from having more angels around.)
In an age of uncertainty and shaky foundations, the church should be a beacon of hope to those who may not ever get a chance to experience God’s love. But if you give Christlike love to someone in need there’s a good chance they will see Christ in their midst and be move to follow him.
I have a friend from seminary who between classes would stand on the streets of Pasadena, desperately trying to win non-believers over to Christ. I don’t know how he did it, or how effective he was, because every time he asked me to join him I made up some excuse not to.
Unfortunately, this way of doing ministry caused David to burn out. But while he was taking a break from it, he noticed how much easier it was to make friends with non-believers when he wasn’t burdened down with converting them.
David would realize that “evangelism is much more than preaching and proclamation it’s putting your whole life on display for the world to see who Christ is through you.” The voice of the one proclaiming is Christ himself who speaks through those he sends. That’s you and me.
Like Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Jesus has no face but ours.” He has no hands, no feet, no voice now but ours. We are his church, his body. He entrusted us point people to him. And we do that by being like him in all that we do.
Jesus didn’t resort to using fear or shame or guilt to get people to follow him. He just lived his life in honor of God’s glory and people naturally wanted to be a part of it. That’s the cause and effect that God’s love produces.
People need to hear the good news if they are going to find what God has to offer. Thus, “We should never shy away from sharing the gospel whenever God gives us the chance.”
In May of 2018, some 29 million people tuned in to watch Prince Harry wed Meghan Markle. Amidst all the royal pageantry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the most Reverend Michael Curry, preached a powerful sermon about God’s profound love for the world to hear.
With all eyes on him, he stated, “If humanity ever captures the energy of God’s love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”
Knowing and believing that faith comes by hearing, Bishop Curry seized on the opportunity God had provided for him to share the gospel. And it left people wanting more.
Evangelism is not an option. It’s our mission. It’s who we are as people of faith.
Evangelism can be as simple as standing up for a kid who’s being bullied, or making grocery bags to be handed out at the food pantry, It can be as easy as even sharing this messages on Facebook. Better yet, inviting someone to join us live, online or in person.
I remember the day I was talking a neighbor about a personal issue I was dealing with. Towards the end, she asked me how I was able to get through it without losing my mind. Instead of telling her, I asked “What are you doing next Sunday morning around 11?”
(That invitation was to join me at the same church we would eventually get married in. Talk about the positive cause and effect of evangelism).
If we believe that in Christ, God has redeemed the world, forgiven sin, offered grace upon grace…then why would we want to keep it to ourselves.
Good news needs to be share just as much as hope and grace and forgiveness does. There will always be someone out there who needs to hear that they are loved, no matter what. There’s a good chance when they hear the good news, they’ll want to know more.
Evangelism is all about putting our faith into action. It’s about making Christ visible and available for the entire world to see.
Paul urges us to embrace a life based on faith that is both written on your heart and spoken with your lips. For such a life of faith has the divine power to transform the world and all who are in it.
It’s time to reclaim evangelism from those who have weaponized it. It’s time to claim it and proclaim it by living into our own Christlikeness; loving one another as wildly and recklessly as God has loved on us.
With the Spirit of Christ upon us, let’s go out into the world proclaiming our faith, knowing God isn’t looking for perfection just participation.
It’s not our job to save the world. That’s what Christ was sent to do.
Our job is to lead others to him in the many different ways we love God, love others, and serve both.
Evangelism is not an option. It’s our mission.
Adapted from Sharing God’s Love. August 1, 2021.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Byassee, Jason. "Temptation to Cheat." Sojourners, Feb 2016: 48.
Park, David. From an email he sent on August 10, 2023.
Here's a little something from Richard Rohr that was adapted from his book Immortal Diamond. It speaks to my heart and vision for how I wish we could all see. I hope it speaks to you as well.
We each have different faces and different colors of skin; some of us have hair, some of us don’t; some are tall, some are a little shorter. If we are living out of the false self, all we can do is measure, compare, evaluate, and label. That’s what I call dualistic thinking, and it’s where our world lives. Many people think that all they have are these external costumes—but when we put on the eyes and mind of Christ, we have a new pair of glasses. We can look around and know that the world is filled with infinite images of God. Isn’t that a nicer world to live in? It’s the ultimate political-social critique.
I studied art history in college. I have see all sorts of antiquities, like these eyes that Rabbi Ruttenberg wrote about. I have seen hints of color in statuary, but none are as vibrant as they once were. Colors fade over time. The precious metals, if they aren't stolen, will corrode as they age. Even the stone, like marble, cracks and crumbles. Same is true about us.
We all put on some kind of makeup, painting ourselves to look like what we think is real beauty. We believe it's everlasting. But the harsh truth flesh dies. We waste time with defining ourselves and others by outside standards, when Jesus taught us to look inward, to see the Divine Image within each person. This is one's true self. By looking through the eyes of Christ, we see who we really are - God's beloved. When we come to see ourselves this way, then we will be able to see each other the same. With new seeing comes new ways to love unconditionally as God first loved us.
Again, Rohr has this reminder for us. "We cannot build any serious spiritual house if we do not first find something solid and foundational to build on—inside our self! 'Like knows like' is the principle. God-in-us already knows, loves, and serves God in everything else."
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
From The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to latest in theIndiana Jones series, Hollywood has always found entertaining ways to capitalized on that treasure seeking spirit within us all.
Long before television, Jesus described of the kingdom of heaven as a treasure hunt of sorts. Sometimes you stumble upon it like Jed Clampett did. Other times you race to find it, like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure.
Which takes us to today’s lesson, and our conclusion of what I like to call Jesus’ Sermon of the Parables – those seven short stories in Matthew 13 where Jesus reveals the mysteries and value of God’s abundant and steadfast love.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."
These two super short parables have been called the “Twin Parables” because they share the same blood but remain uniquely their own. At this point in the chapter Jesus is no longer talking publicly to the crowd. Instead, he’s speaking privately to his disciples to help them understand the greater mysteries of God that have been hidden in plain sight.
As Campbell Morgan expressed, these two parables “constitute the secrets of God, but they are revealed to men of faith, knowing they will be strengthened and heartened and equipped for all their services.”
In the first one, Jesus paints a vivid picture of a person stumbling upon a hidden treasure in a field. Overwhelmed with joy and excitement, the individual promptly sells everything they own to purchase that precious field.
This might seem odd to us today, but before the modern banking system, it was common for people to bury valuable possessions to keep them safe from thieves and marauders. It was a pretty good system, unless you died without telling anyone where your treasure was buried.
It must have happened a lot because people are still digging up antique vessels filled with gold coins, precious gems, and various kinds of heirlooms.
Yet, Jesus isn’t talking about material treasures but spiritual ones. And a particular treasure that is worth everything to the one who finds it.
This makes me wonder, “What would you give up everything to possess?” The disciples gave up their families, their jobs, their safety, and security – all to follow a man who had nothing material to offer them. What did they expect to gain in return for their sacrifice?
Like I argued last week, the parables aren’t about us. They are about God and God’s reign. In the kingdom of heaven, it’s God who sows the seeds, and deals with the wheat and weeds, and makes worthless things worthy. And as we see here, it’s God who sacrifices everything. Causing great joy in heaven.
Although the parables reveal God to us, they also speak to the part of God that dwells within us. That is to say, the divine image of God’s love - that precious, invaluable treasure that is just waiting to be uncovered and embraced.
In finding this love we will find who we are - God’s beloved, who have been empowered to carry forward what Christ set in motion.
Whether we stumble upon it or seek it out, when we discover this divine treasure within us, we learn the depth of our inherent worth in the kingdom of heaven.
This takes us to the second parable about a merchant in search of the finest pearl. Like the treasure hunter, when he finds one of such exquisite beauty he sells all that he has and buys it.
In the kingdom of heaven God actively searches for us. And upon finding us, spares no cost to possess us. Robb Bell reminds us that, "We are all pearls of great price. The divine spark within each of us is valuable beyond our comprehension."
Now, here’s what I know about pearls. First, they’re the only gem made from a living creature. Diamonds, rubies, or emeralds can’t make this claim.
Moreover, pearls are formed out of great suffering. For example, a parasite or a grain of sand works its way inside an oyster. In order to sooth the pain, a fluid is produced that coats the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is built up until a lustrous gem is formed.
Every pearl is made this way, yet no two are the same. Some are created naturally in saltwater; others are farmed in freshwater. Some are various shades of white; others are various shades of black. Yet each one is worth everything to God.
One of the hidden truths of this kingdom is that our God loves every one of us – so much so that God would come walk among us to redeem us back to whence we came.
That’s the Christian message, isn’t it? “That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that anyone who believes in him will not parish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
I know plenty of people who can recite this infamous verse, but can’t actually comprehend the great mystery hidden within it. It’s hard for them to see how that sacred treasure of God’s steadfast love has been given to the entire world. Not just to Catholics or Protestants, but to every living creature made in God’s image.
I also know plenty of good people who doubt their faith. You might be one of them. You might be struggling with feelings of unworthiness or believe you have to do something to earn God's love. But that’s not how it works in the kingdom of heaven. In this sacred space, God chases after us and loves us without any terms or conditions.
Our true worth comes not from our possessions or accomplishments, but from being wonderfully made in the image of God. For God’s love knows no bounds. It transcends barriers of race, gender, sexuality, social status, and religious affiliation. It recognizes the unique beauty in each divine creation.
Because we possess that love, we must express that love in all the ways we are able. God’s love has made us “valu-able” thanks to the gift of Christ that has empowered and employed us.
Once we truly grasp the depth of God's love for the treasure that it is, we can fearlessly and faithfully love God, love others, and serve both. We can step outside our comfort zones to extend God’s grace and compassion to all people, because each person bears the divine imprint.
Jesus sends us into Anamesa, that space between faith and faithlessness, to be the visible representatives of God’s divine love in this heavenly kingdom…which is here in this present moment. Jesus already ushered it in.
Which means whoever we love, or however we help someone without judgment, or whenever we cultivate communities where everyone is seen, valued, and cherished as beloved children of God, the kingdom of heaven is revealed to those who might not ever get the chance to see it. And whenever those things happen… there is joy in heaven.
Back in 2013, a couple walking their dog on their large rural property in Northern California noticed a rusty can popping up from the ground. Curiosity got the best of them, and they took to digging it up. And boy, were they glad they did.
That old can was filled with gold coins. After quietly celebrating, the couple returned with a metal detector, and unearthed seven more cans for a total of 1,427 mint condition, uncirculated gold coins from the 19th century.
No one knows where they came from or how they got there. Only after the last can was uncovered did the couple notice the odd-shaped rock that had been tied to a weathered leather thong, and left hanging from a tree. The marker of the treasure was right there in plain sight.
We are all God’s beloved children. Each one of us is a treasure hidden in the vast field of God's love. Every soul a pearl of immeasurable worth.
When we come to recognize this divine presence within ourselves and others, we find joy in one another. And heaven rejoices.
So let us go forth into Anamesa, grounded in the assurance of our worth and the worth of every soul.
Let us bring out of this treasure all that is new, and all that is old, carrying the message as living parables of God's inclusive love, shining forth as beacons of hope and healing in a broken world.
For the kingdom of heaven is like you. An everyday, ordinary saint whose value is worth more to God than any earthly treasure.
Adapted from Gathering Together from August 2, 2020.
Bell, Rob. Love Wins: a Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Parables of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963.
There are those times in life where two seemingly opposite events seem to collide and you find yourself in that space between trying to hold them apart. One minute I’m planning my son’s 16th birthday party, and the next I am praying over a dear friend as she is passing on from this life.
When I finally met my son Sean the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. His skin was just enough of a grayish blue color that the nurse began to phone in the special team to revive him. But the OB was calm and told the nurse not to worry, the baby was fine.
I met Betty on my first day leading a special worship service at the nursing home. I wasn’t sure what they were expecting from me when this petite gray haired woman approached me, full of spunk and life. With her blue eyes piercing my soul she told me not to worry' “You got this, kid.”
Immobile and unable to talk I'm the one telling her not to worry, she is going to be fine. I let her know that the phrase “Do not be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times - literally one reminder per day. I don’t know if it was intended to be that number for a particular reason, but it seems like at least once a day God found a way to remind us that it’s all going to work out. We are going to be fine.
Life and death form an intricate dance, an eternal cycle where one’s existence intertwines with the other. In the space between, God invites us into this flow - sometimes leading, sometimes being led. But with God as our dancing partner, we have the assurance that everything is going to be fine.
Like I told both Sean and Betty, “There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God that has been given to you through Christ Jesus.” Hearing that, they both smiled. And everything was fine.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”