Back in college I took a road trip with two friends for spring break. Like most starving students, we barely had enough money for gas, and less for beer. Food was an afterthought. But we had to eat, so we hit the grocery store and grabbed whatever we could afford.
As I was standing in the check-out line, my buddy Gordon came up behind me holding a container of mustard, a loaf of bread, and two cases of beer. No cheese. No meats. No other condiments. He had all that he needed. For Gordon, there was nothing better than a mustard sandwich and a cold beer.
Who would have thought something as common as mustard, which is made from a scrubby weed, could bring a person so much joy? As we continue to look at the parables of Jesus, we know that everything has value in the kingdom of heaven.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.” Matthew 13:31-32
There are seven parables in this one chapter alone. Each describing what the kingdom of heaven is like.
It’s like a farmer who throws seeds everywhere to see what will grow. A place where wheat and weeds grow together. Today, it’s like a tiny mustard seed planted on purpose. And a pinch of yeast that was intentionally added to some dough. This is God’s kingdom that we have been blessed to be a part of.
Jesus began his public ministry telling people to “Repent,” because the “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As we see in scripture, Jesus uses parables to show us just how close this heavenly kingdom is. It’s as close as the ground is to our feet. We can see it with our eyes, touch it with our hands, and taste and savor its goodness.
Jesus uses parables help his followers to see and understand that God is not hidden away in some far away land. God’s divine presence is right here in our midst whether we know it or not. He knows this because he was the one sent to reveal it to us.
Every time Jesus healed someone who was sick, or forgave someone who had sinned, or reached out to someone pushed to the margins of society, Jesus made this heavenly kingdom visible and come to life.
Now, out of all his parables I think the one about the mustard seed is probably the most well-known. There’s a good chance you have heard it to describe one’s faith as in it only takes a little faith to make something big happen. I have taught that before.
But in reading these parables through the lens of Anamesa, I began to wonder exactly whose faith are we talking about? Our faith in God? Or God’s faith in us?
I think when we make it about ourselves, we miss the point Jesus is trying to make. The kingdom of heaven has come. God is near us and with us. If you want to see God, one needs to look no further than Jesus - the living incarnation of God’s glory.
That’s what Jesus is always revealing – not his humanity, but his divinity. Everything he says and does points our attention towards God to lead us back to God. Which gives us a real perspective on how we are to live our lives in imitation of him.
With that said, these parables, like every day ordinary life, really aren’t about us or what we can do. They’re about God and what God does in this heavenly space.
God sows seeds of love. God deals with the wheat and the weeds. God transforms a worthless scrub into a thriving sanctuary. God expands the dough to feed a hungry world.
You might be wondering why Jesus uses the most ordinary things in life to reveal what God is capable of doing. I suspect it’s because God uses ordinary everyday people like you and me to continue what Jesus began.
Like St. Teresa of Avila famously noted, “God has no hands or feet or voice except ours and through these God works.”
God always works with and through the ordinary. Ordinary wine, ordinary bread. An ordinary table. An ordinary grave. God even uses everyday saints like you and me, imperfect as we are, to usher in the kingdom of heaven.
You might think because because your faith is in doubt, or because you don’t know the bible very well, or you have done more screwing up than showing up that God has no use for you. But here’s the thing, Jesus does not use the seven wonders of the world to envision God’s kingdom. He uses common stories about every day, ordinary things to embolden and empower us into action.
Take yeast for example. You might already know that yeast works by making thousands of tiny pockets of air in the dough. But back in Jesus’ days, yeast was used in Jewish stories as a symbol of corruption and impurity.
Jesus makes it very clear that we are also a part of this kingdom he ushered in, and we too are called to participate in this kingdom like he did. It should go without saying that if we are going to follow him, then we must literally follow his example of kingdom living.
You see, to be his church, to be a living thriving growing part of his holy body, isn’t just about loving God and loving others. It’s also about serving both. This is how we become the visible presence of God’s love in a world that is crying out for it.
We might not ever have the chance to heal someone, but we can be there for them when they are suffering. By simply holding that space, as vessels of God’s compassion, we make the kingdom of heaven come near.
We might not get the chance to miraculously feed thousands of people at one time. But in every dish we bring to a lonely neighbor, or every meal we buy for someone who hasn’t eaten today, the kingdom of heaven comes near.
Every smile we offer, every flower we plant, every wrong we right a little bit of heaven is revealed to those who may never get the chance to see it.
As John the Apostle wrote, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).
Whenever and wherever we show love through acts of compassion and kindness, hospitality and humility, justice and peacemaking God is made manifest in us, and the kingdom of heaven is brought within everyone’s reach.
Paul writes, “it’s God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill God’s good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). That purpose is to share and spread God’s glory over all of creation.
How we do that is simple. Love God, love others, and serve both. This isn’t the work of saints, but the way of becoming one. It is the way of Jesus, who has invited us to follow.
Each one of us - as ordinary as we think we are - have been made a little extra ordinary through the power of God’s love given to us through Christ Jesus.
I like to believe that if Jesus were to give us a parable today, we might hear him say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a candy maker who infused candy with mustard.” He would tell us that God is the confectioner. We are the confection. And the mustard is God’s love.
Sweet and sour might seem like an unlikely pair. The same could be said about human and divine. But as Jesus showed us, that’s how it is in the kingdom of heaven.
Adapted from Thriving Together on July 26, 2020.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Henri Nouwen writes: “Jesus’ primary concern was to be obedient to his Father, to live constantly in his presence. Only then did it become clear to him what his task was in his relationships with people. This also is the way he proposes for his apostles: “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit, and then you will be my disciples” (John 15:8).”
If Nouwen is correct, and I believe most theologians would agree he is, then to be a follower of Jesus literally means to be completely obedient to God. Which is to say do exactly what God wants you to do.
“Perhaps we must continually remind ourselves that the first commandment requiring us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind is indeed the first. I wonder if we really believe this.”
So this begs the question, do we really want to follow Jesus? Do we really, truly believe that our obedience must first and foremost be to God, and the way we do that is in the form of love? Loving God is easy to say with our lips, but not so easy to show with our hands and feet; our lungs, our thoughts, our introspection, our eyelashes, ears, muscles, and intelligence.
It seems that in fact we live as if we should give as much of our heart, soul, and mind as possible to our fellow human beings, while trying hard not to forget God. At least we feel that our attention should be divided evenly between God and our neighbor.
But Jesus’ claim is much more radical. He asks for a single-minded commitment to God and God alone. God wants all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul.
This might seem troubling at first, until we realize that what we do to our neighbor, we do also to God (Matthew 25:31-46). I think that’s Nouwen’s point when he said:
It is this unconditional and unreserved love for God that leads to the care for our neighbor, not as an activity that distracts us from God or competes with our attention to God, but as an expression of our love for God who reveals himself to us as the God of all people.
When God is our neighbor, or when we are able to see the divine in those who live and work around us, then we should be able to give every fiber of our being to them. We can love them unconditionally, like God loves us - with steadfast faithfulness - without fear, worry, or a need to receive anything in return.
It is in God that we find our neighbors and discover our responsibility to them. We might even say that only in God does our neighbor become a neighbor rather than an infringement upon our autonomy, and that only in and through God does service become possible.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. "You are the Beloved" (San Francisco: Convergent, 2017)
In the eaves over our back porch is a bird’s nest that’s been there for at least a decade. Multiple times a year, the mourning doves hatch new little baby birds. One year, a swarm of wasps built their nest just a few inches away from the hatchlings; too close to spray insecticide or remove the wasps without endangering the birds.
So, I let it be until it was safe to do something. And guess what? Nothing happened. The birds grew up and the wasps eventually moved on. If these two seemingly opposing creatures can live side-by-side in perfect harmony, then so can we.
Like we will see from today’s reading, we are all called to live in this world together - friends and enemies alike - enduring all the good and bad that we bring with us. Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well... The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 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.’ ” Matthew 13:24-30
Immediately following last week’s parable of the farmer who recklessly throws seeds everywhere to see what would grow, Jesus gives us another parable about another farmer, one who’s more intentional with his seeds.
Like he does every year, the farmer carefully sows wheat in his field hoping to reap a bounty come harvest time. While the seed is germinating, an enemy of the farmer sneaks in and sows weeds into his crop. Unbeknownst to the farmer, the two plants grow together.
When the field-hands discover this, they rush to act. And rightfully so. Weeds not only choke out the good plants, but they also reproduce unwanted seedlings that can plague future crops.
A smart gardener would take immediate action to remove the weeds like the field-hands suggest. But the farmer seems to have a different strategy in mind: don’t worry about the weeds, tend to them both and we’ll sort it out later. This puzzles the workers, just as it probably did to those who were listening firsthand.
Last week I confessed that my obsession to have the perfect yard often sent me into war against the dandelions. But to be fair, it’s not just those pillowy puffs that get my ire up. There’s a vast assortment of evil weeds that snake around my yard strangling the life out of my good grass.
When we moved into this house, the previous owners had put down new sod. It was a spongy, luscious, dark green carpet of paradise that tickled my bare feet. But by spring, some crabgrass appeared.
I should have known by the puzzled look on his face that it was a bad idea to ask the gardener to pull up any crabgrass he spotted. Which he did, diligently. When I returned home, 50% of my beautiful yard was gone. Although he put down new seed in the barren areas, it was too late. The spotted spurge, the chickweed and Bermuda grass had already joined the party.
It’s easy to think this parable is about separating ourselves from bad people and their evil ways. Jesus clearly puts the onus on the evil one for spreading the weeds.
While it’s easy for us to make the devil our scapegoat, let us not forget that just as the wheat and the weeds grow together in the same field, so too does good and evil grow in the same persons.
Which means, the only way to get rid of evil altogether would be to get rid of literally everyone. But according to Jesus, that’s not how it works in God’s kingdom.
Jesus knows evil exists in the world. He, like most of us, suffered dearly because of it. He also knows suffering is inevitable, especially when we love as he taught. And when bad things happen we’re all affected by it either directly or indirectly.
This raises the age-old question “Why does a good God allow bad things to happen?” I don’t know the answer. But I suspect God could ask us the same thing. Why do we let it happen?
Unlike crabgrass, evil isn’t easily rooted out with human hands. Especially when it’s our own deep seeded sin we’re trying to remove.
So, what do we do? In this parable Jesus tells not to worry about it. Those weeds that grow in and around us will be dealt with later. He said at the end of the age, the angelic reapers will collect and separate the good from the bad.
So perhaps, instead of focusing on the evil weeds, we’d be better off putting our attention on producing good wheat. As Robert Capon points out, “The wheat is in the field, the Kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing the enemy can do about any of it.”
Just as God knows good from bad, God also knows the heart. The place where God’s divine images has been stamped into everyone - whether we know it or not.
Just as a weed seed produces weeds, a good and godly heart produces good and godly things.
The world would be a better place if we all just put our attention on that inner goodness - in ourselves and in others. This doesn’t mean evil will no longer exist, but it’s a good way to strip it of its power.
So, where should we begin to make that change in our seeing and understanding?
Capon points our attention to a particular Greek word in this passage: the verb, aphiémi (ἀφίημι), which has two distinct meanings in the New Testament. The first is “to let go, leave, permit” like we read in most modern bible translations. The farmer told his workers to, “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
But Capon argues that’s not how the early followers of Jesus would have heard aphiémi. They would have understood the verb by its other meaning, “to forgive,” like it’s translated in the Lord’s Prayer with the forgiving of debts (or sins or trespasses). “Don’t fight the weeds,” the farmer instructed his workers. “Instead, forgive them. Otherwise you risk your own wellbeing.”
God’s kingdom is not a system of revenge and retribution, but forgiveness and grace.
This is hard for the world to understand. It’s not how power operates. The world isn’t about giving grace, it’s about getting what you deserve. Unless you have received the unconditional love, and unmerited mercy of God’s grace, then it will be hard to understand this parable - muchless what Jesus is all about.
The wheat is already in the ground. The kingdom of heaven has already been ushered in. There’s nothing evil can do to stop what God has already set in motion.
“The malice, the evil, the badness that has manifested in the real world and in the lives of real people, is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells; rather, it is to be dealt with only by forgiving, letting go.” (Capon)
It’s not our job to attack the weeds and risk destroying everything. That’s what evil wants us to do – to use our good to produce bad.
Our job is to let go of our judgements and grudges and the need to always be right, and enter this kingdom with a heart of loving compassion.
Jesus knows an unforgiving heart is a byproduct of evil that holds onto anger and rage which produces hatred, violence, destruction, and division.
Jesus says let that stuff go. It has no place in the kingdom of heaven. We would do better focusing on our own goodness, standing in our Christlikeness, trusting God’s faithfulness and love.
James Finley writes, “In light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time. Our sole purpose is to learn how to love because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny.”
There is evil out there, and it will try to stop us from loving as God loves us. But we are Easter people. At the resurrection of Christ Jesus, God made it very clear evil will never prevail. But love will. Jesus is our proof.
In his letter to the Roman churches, where infighting and persecutions were threatening the church’s existence, Paul reminds us that there is nothing in this world (good or bad) that is able to separate us from the love of God that has been given to us through Christ Jesus.(Rom. 8:39)
All the weeds, and sins, and evil in the world can’t stop what God has already set in motion through Christ. Not a cross. Not a grave. Not anyone of us.
Although we cannot destroy evil, we can face it like Jesus did – by loving God, loving others, and serving both.
To think it was only a couple of years ago we were wearing masks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus. In the same way, if we live into our Christlikeness, sowing the seeds of love as wildly and liberally as he did, then perhaps we can slow the spread of evil from doing any more damage to ourselves and to our communities.
Love is the way into the kingdom of heaven. A kingdom, that Jesus ushered in not “up there” somewhere. But here.
Jesus has entrusted us, to make this kingdom come alive everywhere and anywhere we intermingle with one another; sowing mercy, grace, and love among the good and bad alike, until the Son of Man comes and sorts it all out at the end.
Adapted from Growing Together on July 17, 2020.
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Parables of the Kingdom. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.)
Finley, James. “Practice That Grounds Us in the Sustaining Love of God,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 26, 2020). (accessed on 07-16-2020)
In the book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus, I must learn how grand, sweeping truths - doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology - rub against the texture of an average day. How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.”
The greatest challenge for the Christian church and her people is to live your life like Jesus lived his (loving, forgiving, serving, helping, redeeming, restoring, etc.). This is an intimidating bar he set. That is, until you realize those things were only a small fraction of his life. Most of his life was spent in the mundane, daily tasks of life (eating, sleeping, working, playing, etc.).
I think it’s safe to say we’re not spending every waking hour performing miracles, healing people, or forgiving sin. But still, we do spend every second in and around with God in our ordinary, mundane lives. Which means, the conversations we have, the people we meet, the jobs and menial tasks we do all matter to God. And they should matter to us as well. Because it’s in these moments God meets us where we are and loves on us as we are.
You may not be raising the dead, but when we spend our day in the everyday spaces like Jesus did – honoring God in tasks big and small – we stay connected with our LORD who makes the mundane and ordinary, extraordinary.
When the Anamesa Ministerial Team gathered in Milwaukee last month, it was the first time many of our NACCC friends got to meet Rev. Bob. While he was making new friends, I was off enjoying time with old friends who live nearby.
I did sight-seeing with Amy who I knew from my advertising days. Had brunch with her husband Charlie, a member of Anamesa. A few days later I had dinner with Sarah and Charlie who grew up in the church I was called up in. And after that, I got a phone call from one of my oldest friends from high school. All this while being surrounded by many of my besties in ministry.
In the song Just Breath by Pearl Jam there’s a verse that kept swirling around in my head - “Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love. Some folks have one, yeah others they got none.” I often count my blessings in the faces of friendships I’ve made throughout my life.
I am a lucky man to have my Anamesa tribe to be on this pilgrimage with. And luckier still with you sharing this sacred space with us. I often imagine what might happen if we introduced our friend groups, like we did with Rev. Bob.
Last week, Rev. Dawn planted this seed about having A Bring A Friend To Church event! This week, I’m watering it. We believe if we all did this together, we could grow something amazing.
In my last post, we discussed how the Twelve move from being disciples (students) to being Apostles (the sent) sent to be Jesus’ envoys. They are to go out like sheep among wolves to proclaim the same good news. And perform the same works of healing that he’s been doing.
Not only will they share his ministry, but they are to also share in his poverty, taking with them no money or extra clothing. They must depend solely on the hospitality of others for shelter and sustenance.
Although Jesus endows them with some of his power, he also gives them this assurance, “Anyone who welcomes and accepts what you do welcomes and accepts me, and the One who sent me.”
Much like it is today, one’s identity was tied to family and community. It was understood in the ancient world, that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but the community who sent the person and all that they represent.
To welcome a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him. This tells me that “how” we are welcomed is equally important as how we welcome others.
The Apostles must go out and show compassionate welcome to all people, because in doing so they are showing compassion and hospitality to the one who sent them.
This remains how the kingdom of heaven is ushered in, here and now.
As part of the leadership team for the NACCC, I was kept very busy – moving between meetings and lectures. The day after the conference started, I was rushing to catch the elevator, and ran into a woman who looked a little rushed herself.
She had a similar badge around her neck like mine, but hers was yellow. Meaning she was, like Rev. Bob, a first timer to our conference.
Instead of listening to the voice in my head that just wanted to spend a few seconds alone on the elevator in quiet, I followed the voice of my heart that turned to welcome her. The conversation wasn’t profound, but the presence of Christ surely was. The presence of his peace seemed to calm us both in our busyness.
She later told me that she arrived a day late to the conference, because her flight out of Boston got thrown out of whack by the storms that were pounding the east coast. After enduring a 20-hour travel nightmare, that one kind gesture from a stranger helped her feel welcomed and accepted.
While I can’t recall what we talked about at the elevator, I can remember the smiles we both walked away with. That’s what happens, right? With one act of kindness, two people are affected. That’s how the kingdom of heaven comes near.
Big or small, any act of compassionate welcome is a form of serving Christ. And welcoming him into whatever space we are in.
It should be of no surprise that compassion is always first felt in the heart. This is where God planted Christ, the Divine Image of God, in us.
To bear the image and likeness of God is to be like little Christs, proclaiming God’s glory in our relationships with God and with others.
Paul reminds us that we share the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). But do we have the same will to welcome and serve others in love as he did? When you pass by people, do you see a stranger, or the divine image of God?
St. Theresa of Calcutta believed that in seeing the image of God in the other is to see others with the eyes and heart of Jesus.
When Christ is all we see, our brothers and sisters, our friends, enemies, neighbors, and strangers alike, all become him. Just as we welcome them, we also welcome him. And the One who sent him.
Whether or not Colleen saw this man as made in the same divine image as her isn’t really the point. She saw another with the eyes of a compassionate heart and allowed God to move through her to act.
It doesn't take much to proclaim the gospel. A simple text message to check in with a friend who is going through a difficult time. Or a random act of kindness to a stranger without expecting anything in return.
When we notice God in the other, and move to honor God in that person, the kingdom of heaven is ushered in. And our reward is full.
Everything we do can be a holy act by taking the love and compassion you have for someone you care for and giving it to someone you don’t.
Our job is not to “save” them or make them one of us because they are already one of us, one of God’s. Our job is to love them because in that love we are loving the Christ in them.
Jesus sends us to proclaim the good news - that heaven has come here. I take that to mean that this space we call Anamesa is filled with the divine presence of heaven. Which means there are plenty of opportunities for us to welcome Christ.
To see the divine all around us means to honor it - not with violence and war, but with love and compassion.
If we can see Christ in everyone, then we might be more inclined to guard everyone’s dignity, nurse every wound, protect the rights of every beloved child of God.
Jesus made it abundantly clear that salvation is intimately tied to how we embrace and honor this divine image in one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
In the last parable he taught, the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus said the way we treat one another is, ultimately, representative of our response toward him. He said, “Just as you did to the least of these your brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
Giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, justice to those who are oppressed and imprisoned. These are the greatest forms of worship we can offer God because we’re doing them directly to God.
Compassion is not just a feeling or a state of mind. It’s an action. One which calls us to lay aside our personal comforts to meet the needs of others. This is what it means to love God, love others, and serve both.
Jesus sends us to meet people where they are. And shows us how to use our own experiences as keys that unlock the door of our heart, so God’s love, grace, and mercy can flow freely through us.
Jesus sends us into Anamesa, that space between our brothers and sisters, to meet those crying out and allow the constant flow of God’s love to alleviate their suffering. It doesn't have to be a grand heroic act. You don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way. Jesus said it can be as simple as giving someone a drink of cold water.
The real gift they are receiving isn’t us, but Christ himself and the One who sent him.
Thank you to Rev. Ole Skjerbæk Madsen at christfulness.net for his words of inspiration on compassionate welcome.
Adapted from The Smallest of Acts by Ian Macdonald on June 28, 2020, at jesusnotjesus.org. (accessed on June 29, 2023)
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
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.”