Love is the ultimate cross we have to bear. And it is the ultimate sacrifice we can make for, and with, and towards one another.
Like Eugene Peterson said, “We want to follow Jesus, but like Peter we also want to tell Jesus where to go. Jesus doesn’t need our advice; he needs our faithful obedience.”
We’d do better by listening to Christ then trying to get him to listen to us. As so many of my atheist friends like to point out, too many Christians talk the talk, but only a few are willing to walk the walk.
Which is why I want to point back to how Matthew began this portion of scripture. “From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples...” what it means to follow him. Jesus revealed his true self. Not with a Masterclass or PowerPoint presentation, but by being the living embodiment of the gospel.
Jesus led by example; healing the sick, feeding the hungry, showing compassion, and yes, he even confronted in angry protest the unjust practices that had infected Temple life. But more importantly he showed them how to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of gaining an abundant and authentic life.
watch the message here
With a quick word search you’ll see that sacrifice is both a noun and a verb. It is the object being offered ... as well as the act of offering. LeBron James and his teammates were willing to surrender a championship and forego the prestige it would bring them. And for what purpose? Justice? Equality? Some people have ridiculed them for this. Even going so far to tell them to “Shut up and play.”
But their willingness to give up all that they had worked a lifetime to achieve reminds us of what Jesus was showing his own team. Real change begins with making hard sacrifices. Perhaps that’s why people resist change. It’s hard, painful and scary. But if you want to claim Christ’s name you got to play his game.
Following him means denying yourself and taking up your cross. That is to say, to be willing to walk away from your own self-centered ambitions, goals, and choices, to walk the way of Christ – no matter the cost.
As Henri Nouwen pointed out Jesus isn’t telling us to make or find a cross. He’s telling us take up the cross we already have. Yours might be a handicap or disability; chronic pain or depression; conflict in your family or at work. For too many Americans, the cross is being a victim of violence because of the color of their skin or the person they love. We don’t choose these crosses, but they’re ours to carry. 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. After all, “What will it profit you to gain the world but lose your soul?”
Jesus wants us to experience a rich and deeply authentic life; a life where one bears one’s cross, and all the suffering that might entail. Like Paul noted, “this message of the Cross seems like sheer madness. But to us who are being saved we know it is the power of God” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:18).
And like Jesus showed us, the power of God is love. His cross is our reminder of what God was willing to sacrifice to love us. The power of God’s love gives our pain and suffering purpose.
For example, those who have suffered deeply are better able to understand the power of compassion. And are better able to put themselves on the line to bear one another’s burdens.
Just look at the kids who survived a school shooting. They are better able to speak to and for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They are more willing to stand up against powerful lobbyists to demand real reforms that will enable us all to live in peace. LeBron James, Kwai Lenard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, they know what racial injustice feels like. That is why they are willing to make the sacrifice.
Jesus shows us that our sacrifice and suffering are critical parts of who we are, they are the keys to unlocking our real self and our true faith. They require us to put real trust in a God who paradoxically overcomes death with life.
Like the disciples will come to learn, 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 in and by our faith, the Bible assures us that we’re given the power of the Holy Spirit, the same power given to Jesus, to do the will of God. By our faith, we realize that we have the power to love as God loves us.
What then are you willing to give up so that you can live faithfully and fully in God’s love for you? Jesus tells his followers that whatever you lose will pale in comparison to what you will gain: a foretaste of heaven, here and now.
I know a lot of people who cling to Christ, not because they want to do what he asks but because they want to get into heaven. But here’s the way I see it. I don’t think the disciples followed Jesus because they were looking a free pass to heaven after death. I think they picked up their cross and followed him because they watched him, and saw who he was, and realized heaven had come to them. And they wanted to be a part of it.
God didn’t become incarnate to us to prepare us for death. God came, in real human flesh, to give us an abundant life. 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?”
“Our faith must be alive,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. “It implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Praying not just with hearts and minds, with our actions in the world.”
Again, Jesus showed his disciples how to do this. He walked the walk, and talked the talk. And expects us to do the same. If we dare to follow Christ, then our actions must be modeled after him. If we live and love as Jesus did, then our actions will be pure and purposeful, and we will do our share to help create a more peaceful world for all of God’s children.
This is what it means to be the church – to be the very incarnation of God’s love in the world. Love is the ultimate cross we have to bear. And it is the ultimate sacrifice we can make for, and with, and towards one another.
Jesus shows us the way. He is the good shepherd who leads his sheep and cares for them, tending to their wounds, protecting them from danger, and is even willing to lay down his life for them. If we claim his name, then we too have to be willing to bleed, weep, sweat, and die for him. The world might see this as folly and foolishness. That anyone who is looking to save their life must lose it.
But Jesus both showed us and told us that this is it the end of the story. The cross of Christ is empty. His tomb is empty. Out of the worst suffering, out of the apparent meaninglessness of death and defeat, God is able to bring new life.
What God accomplished in Christ, God is able to accomplish in you and me. This might mean walking out of a game in protest of racial inequality. This might mean getting involved in a cause that might cause you to lose some friends, or even your job.
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.
If you want to see God in your midst look for the light and not the diamond. “There are so many facets, and yet the light is not in any of them. Their beauty lies in their ability to reflect what is beyond them,” writes Taylor. Yet to see God in others, who no doubt possess both good and evil, you have to look for the light that is within us all.
Sometimes that’s all I can do, look inside someone’s dark soul to find a glimmer of light to love. The rest I might want to kill but that little light stops me from doing it. Finding that light becomes the task. And I often find it when I set aside myself for the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner. When I can see every human being as Jesus in disguise, I can see the light and know God is not just real but very present.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
The great 20th Century American journalist, social activist and anarchist Dorothy Day, made her name as a anti-war pacifist, a women's rights activist, and champion for the poor and social justice issues with her the Catholic Workers Movement. Arrested more than once for exercising her rights and expressing her beliefs, this athiest turned Catholic lived as if every one she met were Christ. Speaking on this passage from Matthew 25, Day meant what she said, "The true atheist is the one who denies God's image in the least of these."
If you're a Christian, a self-proclaimed follower of Christ, the let the reality of that quote sink in.
Now, Jesus knew Simon was no bedrock. In fact, he was more like the stones I tried stacking along the riverbed in Zion —a little too lumpy and rough to balance without a steady hand to guide it.
Although he had his foibles, Simon also was the only one of Twelve who put the pieces together. The way Libby Barlow sees it, “It is such a profound moment that it calls for a re-naming, a new reality from now on, like Abram to Abraham or Jacob to Israel.” Simon becomes Peter, The Rock.
Roman Catholics view his new name as a proper noun to uphold the doctrine of apostolic authority and succession. From Peter to Pope Francis, they believe the keys to the kingdom are held exclusively in the hands of Rome.
Protestants argue the plural form of Petros to defend the idea of a Priesthood of All Believers. That’s to say everyone who believes in Christ is called to be a rock that builds up the church upon his foundation. Either way, I think we can all agree that being a rock for Christ is not an easy task.
watch the message here
Traditionally, the father is supposed to be the rock of the family; the strong one in times of weakness. But that’s not really the case in our home. My wife is the rock that we stand on for comfort, health, nourishment, and learning. The kids have been rocks for one another - especially when big changes happen in our life. We are rocks that have delicately balanced upon one another for generations.
We look out for each other, support and protect, and build one another up. With Fiona in college, our little cairn feels off balance but yet we’re not falling down. Why is that? I think it’s because we know who Jesus is. Just as Jesus saw Simon Peter and his potential so too does Jesus see us.
“We’re pointy in all the wrong places. We wobble and shake. We can barely hold on to one another. Thankfully, Jesus’ hands are practiced and patient…he finds our balance points…raises us from our feeble flatness to new heights that we can reach only when in community with one another…he calls us to say aloud, with Peter, that he is the Saving One, a confession strong enough to hold us.” (Barlow)
If only we could see ourselves like Jesus sees us. And allow ourselves the same grace and mercy that God has given to us.
Years ago, the great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a boy born out of wedlock. Everyone in the small community knew about it. Everywhere the boy went, he always felt their gaze on him as they tried to figure out who his father was. Because of this, the boy didn’t like being out in public.
When he went to church, he would come in for the sermon and sneak out afterwards. One Sunday some people were blocking the aisle and the boy couldn’t get out. Suddenly he felt this heavy hand on his shoulder. It was the minister who stared at the boy’s face.
With a bold, commanding voice, the minister bellowed, “Boy, I think I know whose child you are . . .” He paused long enough for people to notice. With a big wide grin, the minister declared, “You are the child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then swatted the boy on the back and declared, “Now you go claim your inheritance.”
The way Jesus sees us is no different.
Jesus knows our names because we share his name – God’s beloved. Like him we are God’s children. Heirs to the kingdom that Jesus has given us the key to. You might think you’re unworthy or undeserving. But Jesus knows what kind of rock you are, and places you exactly where you need to be.
You are a living stone, a living memorial to God’s Divine presence in the world. As such, Jesus is asking you point blank, “Who do you say that I am?” What is your answer?
Peter confessed, “You are the Christ.” These four simple words became the very foundation of Christian faith. This tells me that the rock in this story isn’t Peter. It’s his testimony. It’s like Jesus is asking, “What is your testimony of me? How have you experienced the fullness of God’s glory through me?”
Like the variety of rocks and gems in the world, our answers will be varied. We might call God by a different name, or use different terms based on our theology. That’s okay. That’s the point. We are all different people, with different circumstances. By the diversity of our answers, we are better able to we see the true fullness of Christ through whom God leaves no stone left unturned. By focusing on our testimony instead of our shortcomings, we will never be ashamed of the gospel, as St. Paul testified.
More importantly, I believe it’s in the way we testify that helps us from becoming complacent. I fear church doctrine has made it too easy for us to speak someone else’s confession. It doesn’t take much to recite a statement of faith. Does it? But what does it take to confess your faith with your heart and your hands? It takes being a rock.
If you know Jesus, then you know what he wants you to be a rock for others to lean on. His ministry was one of words and deeds; one that shared the good news of God’s redemptive grace in the many different ways he defined God’s Love.
As his disciples, we are the rock of his salvation. Jesus has given us the authority to carry out his mission of love. Love is our confession. Love is our testimony. Love is the ultimate key to the kingdom. When we proclaim God’s love, not even the gates of hell can prevail.
Love stops us from hurting and harming one another. Love strengthens us to lift up our neighbors and care for them in their times of need. Love is the bedrock that life is so perfectly and purposefully balanced upon. Love is what it means to be the church.
We are not a building of bricks cemented together by mortar, we are living stones – held together by mutual Love, honor, and respect.
Like Brian McLaren wrote, “If you want to see the future of Christianity, don’t look at a church building. Go look in the mirror and look at your neighbor.” During these times of uncertainty and change, when anger and division builds walls around us, let us love like we’ve never loved before.
As you leave here today I hope that you will remember this: God needs you now more than ever to step up to your calling – to be the visible presence of God’s love for each other.
In the daily challenges you face – be it a physical, social or spiritual disease – you must never forget that you are the rock. You are strong, sturdy, and steady because the hand of Christ is upon you. He is the one who builds each one of us up.
It doesn’t matter that are all different shapes, sizes and colors. It doesn’t matter that some of us are made of granite or marble, others of limestone or clay. Some of us are gold nuggets, others simple pebbles along the riverbed.
Yet to God, we are diamonds in the rough each of us made precious and priceless by the hand of Christ. Through him, God has a special place for all of us in the cairn, that divine memorial of God’s redemptive glory.
Whether you see this passage like I do, or roll your eyes in doubt, remember this: In God’s heart...there is room for everyone.
For God so loved the world, which includes you, that he sent his son to redeem you and to reclaim you to your rightful place as a beloved child of God. This is the good news. May it forever be your testimony as you move on with your day.
Barlow, Liddy. Living By The Word. August 17, 2020. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/august-23-21a-exodus-18-210 (accessed August 20, 2020).
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Craddock, Fred B., Mike Graves and Richard F Ward, eds. Craddock Stories. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.
Lorincz, Lauren. Peter The Rock. August 27, 2017. https://laurenlorincz.com/2017/08/27/peter-the-rock-sermon/ (accessed August 20, 2020).
Some 25 years ago my friend and colleague, Lowell Linden, wrote a book entitled Through the Stained Glass Window. It’s daily devotional of sorts, filled with tender short stories created to get you thinking differently about life. Today’s was one such story. I believe it will touch a lot of right notes in us; especially now, in these trying and challenging days we are experiencing.
Here's what he wrote:
A man was trying to get some work done at home. He was also babysitting his five-year-old son. The boy’s father found a picture of the world in a magazine and tore out the picture. He preceded to tear the picture into small pieces. He said, “Look at this. Do you think you can put all the pieces together and make a picture of the world?” His father was certain it would take a great deal of time.
In this time we are all experiencing something bigger than ourselves. It may feel like the world is tearing apart at the seams, and perhaps it is. But there is hope. That hope is in us. We have the power to start by putting ourselves back together, to heal our wounds and brokenness. And we can then use our story as a healing balm for the world.
Once we see our brokenness, and move to heal and restore it, we begin to see the wounds of others and can offer sympathy and grace, mercy and forgiveness, the love and healing balm that makes the world one again.
Linden, Lowell. Through the Stained Glass Window. (Redlands, CA: self-published, 1995). p. 118.
This marvelous quote by this marvelous author and theologian seems to sum up the entire point of this blog.
Had I known it was going to be this long, I would have started reading War and Peace. Or at least finished Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s great novel that knows a thing or two about desperate people doing desperate things.
The story begins with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, being released from prison; having served his time for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family. Because of his criminal past he is forced to sleep on the cold streets, at the mercy of anyone who will help. When he is taken in by a kind priest, a desperate Valjean steals away in the night with the man’s silverware. But that’s when a great miracle happens.
Immediately after he is caught, the priest tells the police he has given the silverware to the criminal even pressing him to take the two silver candlesticks he had left behind. When the coast is clear, Valjean is told that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use the money from the silverware to make an honest man of himself. For the next thousand or so pages, our hero’s journey move from desperation to grace and finally, to his redemption. His is a story like so many that begin with someone screaming Lord, have mercy.
In her book The Miracles of Jesus, Jessica LaGrone realized there is a common thread that runs between those who are healed by Jesus. “They are all desperate.” In today’s reading, we get one such story about a woman at the end of her rope. She’s run out of ideas and options. All she can do is beg for mercy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Read Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.”...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 instantly. Matthew 15:21-28
Can you imagine approaching Jesus with a dire request only to be flat-out ignored. This isn’t the Jesus we know and love, is it?
Our Jesus would never diss you or tell you that you’re not his problem, would he? What would you do if he did? Would you run after him? Plead and beg your way into his good graces?
What if he called you a dog, and not in a good way either? Would you still persist and pursue after him?
Apparently, this is what happened when Jesus and his disciples go to the district of Tyre and Sidon. We don’t know why his itinerary took him there. This was the side of the tracks upright Jews wouldn’t dare go.
This was Gentile country. So, it’s not surprising that they’d run into a Canaanite or two. What’s unusual is that this particular Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is. Moreover, this gentile received compassion from Israel’s Messiah.
I mention this because the Canaanites were Israel’s biggest enemy in the OT. Their idolatrous religion was seen as a threat to the religious purity of God’s people. In fact, God empowered the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites. Which they did. Given the acrimonious history, I doubt this woman was shocked to be met with silence and some verbal abuse.
Nonetheless, she persisted – ignoring the history and social norms of her day to get Jesus’ attention. And can you blame her? Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I’m sure if my family were starving, I would steal food, like Valjean. Or if one of our kids was suffering like her daughter was, I wouldn’t think twice about setting aside my pride and prejudices if I knew she would be healed.
I think it’s safe to say her story is ours. It’s about us and the communities in which we live. There are people and areas in our lives possessed by the demons of systemic racism, poverty, and inequality. It’s causing anger and rage to boil over onto our streets and into our homes.
There are so many of us throwing our hands in the air, wondering what we can do.
When you’re the desperate or feel only hopelessness, there’s no telling what you will do. Given the spiritual, emotional, and cultural suffering we’re experiencing today, this woman’s story offers a great example to follow.
watch the message here
Notice what she does. First, she recognized Jesus for who he is and turned to him for help. How she knew who Jesus was remains a mystery, but she called him Lord, Son of David. Clues that point to some kind of royalty perhaps.
Remember she is a Canaanite. And probably leans politically with Herod and Rome. But she is also a mother with a troubled child. My guess is she’s heard things about this particular Jew. In the desperate cry of a concerned parent, she is willing to set aside any animosity and run after the one whose reputation proceeded him.
Perhaps this is why LaGrone sees “Desperation is a gift from God because it teaches us we can’t do this on our own. 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.”
I‘m sure we’ve all experienced some kind of suffering. But sadly, not everyone recognizes and seeks the One who always meets us in our brokenness, in our places of pain and anguish. He chooses to heal our woundedness. And restore us to our belovedness.
If there is something that you are facing today, something that you can’t seem to control or handle, I invite you to seek Jesus…and run into the open arms of God’s love. Embrace the plea of this desperate mother and shout “Kyrie Eleison” - Lord have mercy.
As Stanley Hauerwas taught, this unknown Canaanite woman, is not only “the forerunner of our faith, ...[she] teaches us how to speak.” Lord have mercy.
Whether that was said boldly or desperately, in speaking those two words, this unknown woman leapt over the chasm created by centuries of animosity and violence. In doing so, she would come to discover that God’s mercy may have started with Israel, it doesn’t end there.
In Christ, she saw and recognized the very nature of God’s love. A love which overflows to all; even the dogs. As mutts and mothers, this is our wake-up call.
Even as he ignored or rejected her, nonetheless she approached Jesus with an unshakable conviction, knowing in her heart that God’s mercy and grace was enough to restore her daughter and save her family. Jesus recognized this as faith, and immediately her daughter was healed.
What does this mean for us today? I think it’s a pretty clear indication that God’s love is not exclusive. It’s for anyone who comes in faith. What that faith looks like or sounds like is not up to us to decide, but to Christ who was entrusted with God’s loving heart.
This woman joins the countless other desperate people who seek out Christ. The blind, the lame, and dying. The thousands who are hungry, but there’s not enough food to feed them all. The demon possessed, and those with leprosy who have been cast out from their families and community. A woman with a crooked spine. A man whose hand is withered beyond recognition. A woman who has been bleeding for twelve years (LaGrone).
The Roman centurion who tracks down Jesus to heal his beloved servant. His story is like this one in that both of these healings are request made by someone other than the sick, and both take place far away from Jesus (Mt. 8:5-13)
How blessed are we that God loves to bless the desperate, reach the broken, and heal the wounded?
Perhaps that’s why this story speaks so well to us in this historic moment. Because right now, Americans are struggling with how to approach racial inequality. It’s affecting families, eroding friendships, and dividing communities. Now, more than ever, let us cry, Lord have mercy.
From our biggest cities to the smallest townships, tens of millions of people are out of work, businesses are losing revenue and small shops are closing their doors forever. Now more than ever, let us shout, Christ have mercy.
Right now, as our nation’s leaders fail to come together for the common good, the U.S. continues to average around 1,000 deaths/day from COVID alone, not to forget all the countless others who are dying from cancer, heart disease, suicide and overdoses. Now more than ever, let our screams be heard, Lord have mercy.
As temperatures soar above their yearly average, the world’s ice shelves are melting at alarming rates. Kyrie eleison.
As millions of God’s children lack clean water, have inadequate health care, and suffer from malnutrition caused by famine and violent conflicts. Christe eleison.
As we gather together to worship God and learn how to be Christ like our neighbors are worrying about how they are going to make their mortgage, or simply make ends meet. Kyrie eleison.
It’s times like this we shout out to God for help. Desperate times call for desperate measures. May we never forget that “Jesus is the miracle worker of those in despair, the Savior of desperate people.”
But here’s the ironic thing. Jesus is the one calling out to us. He is the one begging us to go out to the streets. He's pleading with us to go to the other side of the tracks to meet people where they are, to share God’s love and mercy with one another. And to do it so much that mothers and fathers no longer have to worry if their child will come home after jogging around the neighborhood or going to the store to buy some candy.
By recognizing Jesus and leaning on him, we too can embrace his life of inclusive love as our own – engaging in courageous conversations, adopting an open-minded heart; practicing tolerance and living in mutual respect with one another.
Because he is merciful to us, so too can we show mercy to one another. LaGrone writes, “Your desperation is a gift if you’ll let it be.”
Like St Paul wrote, “My strength is made perfect in my weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
So let me ask you this: What will your desperation cause you to do to further the kingdom of heaven? Who will you reach out to in love, as a bridge builder and peace seeker?
As you leave here today, I invite you to embrace your fear, your worries, you anxieties and desperation. Because this is where you’re going to meet God in Christ.
By turning your eyes upon him, and by giving your faith over to his mercy you’ll discover that no one is a “dog."
And that everyone is a beloved child of God, deserving of God’s grace and of God’s holy name.
Let us come together and sing out loud to divine creator, to shout from hearts, “Kyrie eleison.”
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Canterbury Classics, 1862.
Kesselus, Ken. What's Wrong? August 10, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/whats-wrong-pentecost-11-august-16-2020 (accessed August 14, 2020).
LaGrone, Jessica. Desperation: What Miracles Are Made Of. April 16, 2019. https://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/04/15/desperation-what-miracles-are-made-of/ (accessed August 15, 2020).
Bored and alone. That's what had me flipping upward on Instagram. Looking for entertainment. Instead I found myself crying. Not in a bad way. But in a rather surprising way. A way I never saw coming. I should have seeing that my friends post gave me ample warning. She wrote, I wasn't in the mood for crying today, but here you go.
What made her cry? What made me cry? Love. It's a powerful emotion we all seek, but we also all see it all around us in the everyday ordinary things of life. Like a video clip of a young woman in her early 20's sitting on stool in her bathroom. Her boyfriend is causually walking around her with a set of electric clippers in his hand. A buzz here A buzz there. Nothing very shocking or emotional by any means. Yet, I watched. What was so emotional?
As the young woman admired her hair in the mirror, it took her (and me) a moment to realize what the boyfriend was doing behind her. He just began to shave his head too. Overcome by his simple, yet profound act, his girlfriend began to cry. And here's why.
Had I read on in the post I would have learned that the girl was suffering from alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss from part of the head or body. Typically at least the head is involved. And I assume this was the case with the young girl. But it was out of an act of love that the boyfriend (who had an amazing head of hair) wanted to show solidarity with her. He wanted to stand in her shoes, or perhaps he didn't want her to stand alone. With no hair to hide behind.
I've seen dozens of video clips like this. A young child loses his hair due to chemo for his cancer, and his entire baseball team shaves their heads so he doesn't feel alone. The dad who does it for a daughter, or the daughter who does it for her dad. In fact, they are so common these days that it's surprising that they are still able to move me. Often to tears. But they do.
When I think about it, I can't help but think this is God in our midst. Shaving in solidarity. Loving unconditionally. It's such a common occurrence that we often overlook the sacredness and the holy. And yet, I weep just thinking about it. That's the kind of love and compassion given to me. Each time I fuck up. There is God. Picking me up and teaching me a new way to do whatever it was I was trying to do.
The Hebrew people have a word for this kind of divine love: hesed. It's an everlasting, steadfast, uncompromising love that really only God can offer. It's a love and kindness that endures all pain and persists even when rejected. The kind of love that will just pick up a set of clippers and start shaving so we don't ever have to feel alone.
Henri Nouwen reminds us that "Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love."
Hesed, steadfast love, was there before anything was created. Dare I say, it is exactly what caused creation in the first place. If that is the case, and we were created out of such great love, then we possess the kind of love that can look into someone's eyes and show mercy; that can take hold of someone's hand and show compassion despite their nationality or skin color.
It's the kind of love that offers grace when someone messes up; love that simply given away because one's heart is overflowing with goodness that was born out of hesed. The kind of love that moves you to tears knowing it's yours if you want it.
Compassion. Mercy. Grace. Love. Hesed. God asks us to go to the places where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share our brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish with those who are there with us. God "challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears...to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless."
Compassion. Mercy. Grace. Love. Hesed means full immersion in the condition of being human like God's own investment in us. Even if it means picking up a pair of electric clippers and shaving your head.
From the banks of the Nile to the triumphal exodus through the Sea of Reeds to her miraculous well, Miriam’s story is as vital to God’s people as water is to us.
I am blessed to have two big sisters. Both of whom I love and adore for a variety of reasons. I can honestly say they have both been good to me. They always loved and looked out for me, even though they told everyone I wasn’t really their baby brother but some kid they ordered from the Sears catalogue.
I am also blessed to have seven sisters-in-law. I think it’s best not to say anything more. I know better, having once said a mother in law joke in church while my mother in law sat in the pew leering at me. All nine of these women have added to my storied life - teaching me lessons that one often learns the hard way.
Now there isn’t any one specific thing that Miriam taught her brothers that’s recorded in the Bible. But if you have an older sibling, or if you are one yourself, then you know she couldn’t help herself to give her two cents.
Everyone knows that other than being a built-in babysitter for your parents, one of the many roles of the big sister is being bossy. Just ask my eldest daughter, who has no problem wielding her power over her brother and sister...or over me. She knows I am forever the baby brother, and she constantly uses that to her advantage.
Some of the best lessons I’ve learned from my sisters have happened by observing them. I’ve watched how they welcome people with openness and kindness. They're always ready to jump in and help out, and always willing to listen to your problems. Their actions have helped me considerably in shaping my ministry. I have also watched both my sisters struggle with some really difficult things in their life, too. As result I have learned how to persist in spite of the obstacles that try to stop me.
Miriam was like that. A persistent and strong role model for her brothers. And at a time when women were to be seen but not heard, nevertheless, Miriam persisted.
Because of her tenacity she was much more than a big sister, she was vital and invaluable to Israel’s story. Perhaps that is why she is mentioned more than 15 times in five separate books of the Old Testament. My favorite comes from the prophet Micah who does something unheard of in his day. He boldly declares Miriam as one of God’s great messengers of deliverance (Micah 6:3-4).
Although she’s often overshadowed by her famous brothers, Micah made it pretty clear that Miriam is on par with Moses and Aaron as having been appointed by God to deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian captors.
This is a far cry from where she started out – as a young unnamed girl babysitting her brother on the banks of the Nile River.
You know the story (Exodus 2:1-10). After living in Egypt for four hundred years, the Hebrew people began to outnumber the Egyptians. With a similar fear to what some of us have in our own country about foreigners, a paranoid Pharaoh declared that “Every male born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile.” Fearing for her son’s life, Moses mom hides the infant in a basket and places him in the reeds on the bank of the river. Moses’ sister, which is how Miriam is introduced, waited and watched to see what would happen.
When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, Moses’ sister does the unthinkable: she approaches the princess and starts up a conversation. Like that wasn’t dangerous enough for a slave girls to do, Moses’ sister convinced the princess to defy her father’s royal decree, and even tricks her into paying Moses’ mom to nurse her own child.
Because of her bold confidence, her fearless tenacity, and her law-breaking/deal making skills, Miriam not only protected and restored her family, but also solidified Israel’s freedom and redemption. And yet, this celebrated savior remained unnamed.
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That’s so like God isn’t it? Lifting up people because of what they can do; not because of who they are. It’s not that our names are unimportant, but I believe it’s our actions that people will remember us by. Miriam was no different.
Thirteen chapters later in the Exodus story, we not only learn Miriam’s name, but also discover she’s a prophet – someone who was chosen to speak for God.
My big sister Sally loves to speak for the entire family, often at a very loud decibel level. I can honestly say, none of it is very prophetic, or godly for that matter. Even though we don’t get any specific details - the Bible gives us some clues to the way Miriam prophesies. For example, after God sends the plagues upon Egypt and delivers the Israelites through the Sea of Reeds, Miriam leads all the women in worship with song and dance (Exodus 15:20-21).
I know for a fact that Miriam’s short song was never a Billboard hit, but it is forever recorded in the holy scriptures as the climax to Israel’s four hundred years of oppression. Ever since then, God’s people have remembered this heroic woman by singing her song during Passover. Talk about an unexpected prophetic witness.
Her song makes me wonder about my own witness. What is my song that I lift up for God’s glory? What can I do to get people dancing and moving with such exuberant joy?
Again as the prophet Micah writes, “and what does the Lord require but to love justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Love. Kindness. Humility. That is to be our song, our witness in the world.
Unlike her brothers who focused on stirring speeches, Miriam chose singing and dancing in moments of joy. It’s been said that because of her exuberant praise after crossing through the waters, God rewarded Miriam’s joy in the most unexpected way.
A sister, a prophet, a savior and sustainer. Miriam is a heroic figure who is still able to lead us through the wilderness of our time. Micah wasn’t just being nice to include her in his prophecy; he was being accurate. He recognized her importance and made sure that her name would be forever engraved on the heart of Israel, and Christians as well.
Like Miriam, Jesus’ story was framed in water. From his baptismal font in the Jordan River, to the wedding at Cana, to the piercing of his side on the cross, Jesus is described as Living Water. It’s written in John’s gospel, that anyone who drinks of this water will never thirst again.
Just as Miriam did for her people, Jesus does for all; lifting us up and sustaining us in times of fear, uncertainty and death. Much like his ancient ancestor, Jesus defied the system and status quo to bring relief to the poor, the sick, and the marginalize. And he still does this today. His cup overflows with the love of God so that all who thirst for righteousness receive it.
On those hard days when you thirst for justice, or want to savor God’s grace; when you feel like you’re trapped inside your house or out there struggling in the wilderness; when you fear you’ll never sing your favorite hymns the way you used to or dance with joy because it feels like there is no more joy to go around, remember the story of Miriam, the big sister prophet, the vessel of God’s loving grace, a leader among men.
As J. Lee Grady says of Miriam, “She was not an inferior appendage, smiling from her tent, washing clothes and preparing food with the other women while Moses and Aaron managed the problems of the nomadic nation. Miriam was given authority by God to lead. She functioned, along with her brothers, as a governing elder.”
And isn’t that what Christ has called us and empowered us to do? To lead - boldly and fearlessly?
I hope that you will leave here today knowing that you too are not only a vessel of God’s goodness, but in Christ you are also a leader. One who steps up when it’s not expected, when it goes against cultural expectations, or when it means stepping up to royalty, and disobeying the written law of the land, Jesus calls us to be like Miriam, who despite the odds set against her, nevertheless, in faithfulness, she persisted.
How blessed are we that we have her story, and “the stories of so many persistent women of faith who fought against the limiting rules and unjust laws, who risked family and life, who spoke when they weren’t supposed to speak, who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, to ensure that God’s justice shall reign on earth.”
Following in this tradition, I encourage you to go and do the same. Just as Miriam was a prophet who paved the way for Christ’s reign it’s now our turn to pave the way for Christ’s return. It’s time to be the one who gets the world to sing and dance and laugh and celebrate again.
So let us go now, and fill each other’s cup with love and joy and all the goodness of life that God has given to us through Christ Jesus. Let us make that our story and our song that bring all glory to our God, now and forever, Amen.
Alexander, T. Desmond and David W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Il: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003.
Artson, Bradley. Miriam: Water Under The Bridge. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/miriam-water-under-the-bridge/ (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
James, Thomas. Persistent Women: Miriam. Sermon on Sept. 9, 2018. https://wsumc.com/multimedia-archive/miriam (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Mandel, David. Miriam. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/miriam/ (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Siegal, Madisen. The Forgotten Sister. January 18, 2017. https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/forgotten-sister-miriam (accessed Aug 07, 2020).
Henri Nouwen writes, “I know that true joy comes from letting God love me the way God wants, whether it is through illness or health, failure or success, poverty or wealth, rejection or praise. It is hard for me to say, “I shall gratefully accept everything, Lord, that pleases you. Let your will be done.” But I know that when I truly believe my Father is pure love, it will become increasingly possible to say these words from the heart.”
Look, I don’t know how God does this loving thing that God does. I can only share what has been given to me in the way of life. Like a cooling balm on my burnt skin or a warm blanket when the goosebumps appear, God’s love is felt when I least expect it. Not so much when I cry out, or scream at the stars, or stomp my feet. Yes, God’s love is there, only I can’t see it. But when I give over to the pain, the poverty, and the promise...and sit there without expectations do I feel the embrace. I think God is telling us to sit still, let go and let your heart be filled. This is a great way to praise God, pray to God, and to be loved by God.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
A while back I saw a man with a metal detector walking in front of my house. Apparently, there are people who like to search around the property of old homes like ours hoping to find antique coins, bottle caps, and other weird stuff. Watch only one episode of Antique Roadshow or Storage Wars… and you’ll learn everything has a value to someone.
Which takes us to today’s lesson, and our conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon of the Parables from Matthew 13. To recap Jesus has compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a sower sowing seeds, and weed that grow among the wheat, and last week it was the mustard bush and a batch of yeast. Today, Jesus teaches his disciples about the worth of this heavenly kingdom and what makes it so valuable.
Read Matthew 13:44-53
Having left the public, Jesus and the Twelve go to a private house where he tells them two sets of “Twin Parables.” Some people called than that because they share the same blood, but are both uniquely their own.
In the first set, you may have noticed that one focuses on a random discovery, while the other is an active search. Yet both express great joy on behalf of the one who finds them. A joy so great that they are willing to sacrifice everything to possess the treasure for themselves.
It’s worth mentioning that the man who finds the treasure buried in the field will be set up for life, while the pearl the merchant procures will cost him everything he has. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: a kind of joy that sets you up for life if you’re willing to give up everything to obtain it.
Again, this kingdom is not some far away home in the sweet by-in-by. It’s a part of the here and now. Jesus brings this to our attention as we learn how to exist with one another.
Why is this important for us to know? Because the other second set of parables remind us of the eschatological nature, or the end times, of these stories. As if Jesus is saying, our future is tied to the ways we behave towards one another this side of eternity.
One could argue these parables are about our faith and willingness to follow Jesus. And in many ways, they are. He shows us the way to live into God’s righteousness. Others might argue they are about the goodness of God, which is the biggest theme of the entire Bible. You might be like me and see a mix of both. For example, I see God as both the treasure and the treasure seeker.
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Now what do we know about treasures, other than pirates like to steal them? Up until the modern banking system, it was common for people to bury valuable possessions as a means to keep them safe from thieves and wild marauders. This was a great idea unless you were killed or died without telling anyone about your secret hiding place.
To this day people are still digging up priceless treasures all over the world. Nearly all of them remain a mystery to who buried it and why. Some of these discoveries include antique vessels filled with gold coins, precious gems, and various kinds of heirlooms. Other’s have been sports memorabilia or antique cars abandoned in storage facilities. Again, everything is worth something to someone.
Just last week I found this old spike while digging in my yard. It’s not worth much, but it was kinda cool to find. The joy I felt when I found it doesn’t compare to what Howard Carter experienced when he discovered King Tutt’s tomb. For those of you old enough to recall, my discovery was still more exciting than watching Geraldo Rivera hunt for Jimmy Hoffa.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: Joy. Delight. Excitement.
In this kingdom some of us are rubies. Some of us are diamonds, gold doubloons, an old photograph or love note. It doesn’t matter who or what you are. God knows your heart and sees your value. Jesus calls you a perfect pearl. One that God is willing to sacrifice everything just to hold you in his hand.
Here’s what I learned about pearls. They’re the only gem formed and found within a living creature. Sapphires, diamonds 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 the lustrous gem is formed.
Every pearl is made this way, yet no two are the same. Some pearls are created naturally in saltwater, others are farmed in freshwater. Some are various shades of white, and others various shades of black. Yet all are worth everything to God.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s joyful and priceless. It’s where something as banal as a grain of sand can be transformed into a unique, intrinsic, highly desired gem. No wonder Jesus said a person will give up everything to have that treasure.
Now, imagine you are the treasure seeker. What exactly are you looking for? More importantly, what are you willing to give up in order to obtain it?
The disciples have given up everything – 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? A mansion and Ferrari in the afterlife, streets paved with gold as if the best God could come up with was Beverly Hills but with better weather and less smog? In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell writes, “How we see heaven will directly affect how we understand what to do with our days in this age.”
The next two parables, I think, allude to the eschatological nature our actions. The good and the bad, the new and the old. They are parables like the wheat and the weeds that tell us not everything will be welcomed in God’s realm. Things like greed, injustice, anger, violence, racism, rituals, doctrine and dogma all come to mind.
Basically, I’d say whatever does not reveal the love and goodness of God’s righteousness is not worth holding on to; especially if they keep you from thriving in the kingdom. It’s best to let them go, if you want to go with Jesus.
Truth be told, it’s not that great of a sacrifice considering what you’re getting in return. Letting go of bad things free us up to joyfully embrace the goodness of the kingdom - bridge building, peacemaking, pursuing justice, and showing mercy and kindness. These are the treasures God is looking for in us. The very things that ignite God’s delight and joy and excitement when found.
Now let’s go back to finding that treasure. In 2013 a Northern California couple had an experienced that would make for a wonderful, modern parable. While walking their dog on their large rural property, they 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 uncirculated and mint condition 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 an odd-shaped rock tied to a weathered leather thong, and left hanging from a tree, right there in plain sight, marking where the treasure was.
This is the kingdom of heaven. It’s full of joy, unexpected surprises, and plenty of clues revealing the mysteries of God. Jesus is one such clue; showing us that the true treasures we seek are within our grasp.
It doesn’t matter if God is the treasure or the one looking for it, or we are. When the two come together, the human and the divine, there is great joy and delight. Every time we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable, seek justice and demand equality, the kingdom of heaven is revealed. As Jesus put it, “Whoever gets in trouble for doing the right thing will be blessed in the kingdom of heaven.”
God knows the treasure that is in us, and the treasure God is. Now it’s up to us to discover its true value.
Despite the division, the pain and suffering our country and the world is enduring, God, in Christ, is making something very holy and sacred happen in our lives. The more we become aware of it, and move to participate in it, the more we discover and uncover the real treasure of God’s love right here and right now in our lives.
Whether you’re a treasure buried deep in the earth or sunk at the bottom of the ocean, remember this there is no place to far or to deep for God’s grace to find you and redeem you back into his heart. That’s the good news. That God is willing to joyfully enter life, to look and search for us, and then claim us no matter the cost, is the greatest treasure of all.
Jesus asked his disciples if they understood what he meant. We know in hindsight, that their ‘yes’ was premature. They will not fully gasp it until they go into Jerusalem with him one last time and witness the power of God’s redemptive love.
Though we have the gospel stories that tell us what happened after Jesus gave his life for us, we don’t really know what God is capable of doing because it’s still being revealed to the world. We have to trust that God knows what God is doing, and stand firm in God’s righteous, even if we get in trouble for doing so. But in return for such faithful action, comes the kingdom of heaven.
So, I’ll ask you one more time, are you ready to let go of the things that are keeping you from living and thriving in God’s love, peace and joy?
Are you ready to live into your faith, to be a valuable part of the body of Christ, the visible presence of God’s grace here on earth as it is in heaven?
If so, then here’s one last parable for you to ponder. The kingdom of heaven is like you. And you are worth more to God than any earthly treasure.
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.
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.”