Being the Beloved

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I preached on Palm Sunday last year, and wanted to post the video of the sermon as a supplement to today’s post, “Cheering or Jeering on Palm Sunday.” If you’re interested in watching the sermon, “Being the Beloved,” click here.

Cheering or Jeering on Palm Sunday

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Alright, I know I’m about two weeks early in writing about Palm Sunday. I’m really excited to start edging toward the Passion Narrative, though, and I don’t want to cram all of the amazing stuff that happens in those texts into one short week. So I’m moving forward, and we’re going to dwell in the Palm Sunday, Last Supper, expectant texts this week, and then move to the full-on passion narrative in each of the gospels in the following weeks.

I preached on Palm Sunday last year, and during my preparation time I loved dwelling on the various stories of the Triumphal Entry. The Triumphal Entry occurs in all four gospels (interestingly, the palms only show up in John), and each of them contains its own nuance. You can read the full text of Matthew 21:1-10 here, but if you don’t have time for that, here’s a summary: Jesus and his disciples are at the Mount of Olives, and he instructs two of them to go into a village, to find a donkey and a colt, and to bring them to Jesus. If anyone challenges them, they’re to respond with the phrase, “The Lord needs them” (v. 1-3). The writer then says that Jesus did these things to fulfill Zechariah 9:9. The disciples do what Jesus asked them to, and they place their cloaks on the donkey and the colt and Jesus sat on them (logistically, I’m not sure how this works — it’s kind of funny to picture Jesus trying to balance on both a donkey and a colt at the same time. I assume that he simply sat on each of them, though). A crowd shows up and they spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” (v. 4-10).

When I was growing up I sort of pictured this scene as a something like a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant. We have one charismatic figure or team in the center, and all of their adoring fans surrounding them, shouting, and cheering them on. After re-reading this text, though, I see some distinctive differences. One difference is how passive Jesus is in this text. He doesn’t actually do anything, except pop himself up onto a donkey and a colt. Other than that, his disciples do all of the work.

The other difference is that this wasn’t a scheduled event. We schedule events so that people show up. If a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant had no attendees, no one flocking to the road or the stadium to cheer and scream, the event would be inconsequential. They need those fans. Jesus, however, didn’t actually need the crowd in this instance. He was there to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah that he would ride into Jerusalem, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9b). The crowd chose to show up and to cheer, because they knew that “he is righteous and victorious” (9:9), and they wanted to celebrate him.

We have no indication of how Jesus behaved while he was riding on the donkey and the colt. If it were like a beauty pageant he would be waving and blowing kisses; if it were like a Superbowl parade he would be cheering, fist-pumping, and chest-beating. Shockingly, I don’t think Jesus did any of these things. In Matthew 20, the chapter before the Triumphal Entry, he predicts his death. He knew, long before he rode the donkey and the colt, that one of his disciples would betray him, that he would be handed over to death, and that the cheers of those surrounding him on Palm Sunday would turn to jeers of “Crucify him” in the days ahead.

Jesus still showed up. He still showed love and favor to those who cheered him, despite the foreknowledge of his fate. He still heals, listens, and teaches as the story progresses after the Triumphal Entry. And what this tells us is that it’s not about us, it’s not about our merit, but it’s actually all about the love that Jesus persistently and tenaciously showed the world while he was among us. Jesus didn’t need the attention, the cheers, and the praises, but the crowd showed up anyway. And while surrounded by all of them, Jesus continued on his mission. So may we show up to cheer and to praise today, all the while remembering Jesus’ larger mission and vision to offer love and redemption to the world.

Angry and Hangry Jesus

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“Jesus never really got angry…. Except when he cleansed the temple!” I have heard a version of this sentiment at various stages throughout my life. It’s the idea that Jesus was a super peaceful, loving, calm guy… except that one time when he totally lost it.

The issue with painting the temple cleansing instance as the only time Jesus gets angry is that it encourages us to think flatly about who Jesus was. A number of caricatures exist that overly simplify the Jesus we see in the Bible. For instance, I often hear about a Jesus who sounds more like a throwback ’60s hippy who we’d find on a street corner reciting the Sermon on the Mount; or a Jesus who is so wrapped up in teaching that he never performed any miracles or healed anyone; or a Jesus who was a complete socialite, constantly hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, and never teaching or rebuking people.

Each of these caricatures contains a whisper of the description of the Jesus we find in the biblical text; however, if we extend these whispers to encompass the entirety of the character of Jesus, we lose sight of the complex man that he was. Moreover, it encourages a dichotomy between the “loving Jesus of the New Testament,” in contrast to the “angry God of the Old Testament,” a heretical split which many churches still harmfully employ today.

So we have the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, and Jesus definitely gets angry. Look at the way John 2:13-17 describes it:

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus gets really fired up because of the amount of business they were conducting in the temple, so he dumps the coins the money exchangers were using and forces everyone out. The disciples then call to mind Psalm 69:9, in which the psalmist prays for the Lord to rescue him, and details how many people despise him. The cleansing of the temple is ultimately a layered text about Jesus’ different-ness. He and the Psalmist hold in common that they do not behave as all others do; rather, they strive to attain a holy life that honors God. That leads the Psalmist to beg God for deliverance, and to Jesus cleansing the temple. Out of care and devotion, Jesus gets angry.

And we see Jesus get angry a number of other times. When he’s sending out the 72 disciples in Luke 10, he states that if a city doesn’t welcome them, “it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (v. 1-12). In Mark 11, Jesus is hungry as he and his disciples are walking, and he sees a fig tree. He’s hoping it has fruit, and when he realizes it doesn’t, he curses it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v. 12-14). Interestingly, the fig tree incident in Mark takes place just before Jesus cleanses the temple, so while we know that he’s justifiably mad when he’s in the temple, he also may have been a bit hangry.

Jesus gets upset. And it’s not a bad — it’s human. By embracing the reality that Jesus was willing to get angry in moments when it mattered, we see a picture of a complex, dynamic Savior, rather than a flat and basic caricature. We also see even more deeply how much Jesus cared about God, about his disciples, and about the world in his willingness to become a bit undignified, passionate, and even fiery. So give yourself a bit more grace, and know that we have a God who is willing to express emotion, especially for what matters most.

Mustard, Leaven, and Our Need to Let Things Grow

I have a very Type-A personality. I like being involved, giving my perspective, trying new things, and staying busy. And I love that God has given me this energy and drive.

While having a Type-A personality definitely has its benefits, I’ve experienced some significant drawbacks as well. I often struggle to just let things be and to “go with the flow.” This makes me especially attrocious at things like team-building activities and group travel.

I have read a number of interpretations of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, but this week I came across one that challenged me to consider deeper how I manage my Type-A-ness. Here is the text in Matthew 13:31-33:

“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'”

One of the interpretations of these parables that comes to mind was written by Shane Claiborne in his book, Jesus For President. I have great respect for Shane’s work and for his writing, but I think he fails to provide enough specificity and nuance in this particular instance. He makes the claim that Mustard Seed was a controversial plant — it grew aggressively, and had the capacity to ruin gardens, buildings, establishments and empires. He argues that Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have liked the comparison of the Kingdom of God to mustard seed or to yeast, because Jews weren’t “big fans” of those powerful substances (Claiborne and Haw, Jesus for President, 102-105). He goes on to assert that “Jewish law even forbade planting mustard in the garden,”  and he makes it seem authoritative by citing the Mishnah (Jewish law code circa 200 AD). Unfortunately, the mishnaic text says no such thing: the passage he cites states, “It is forbidden to sow different species of seeds in one bed. It is permitted to sow different species of vegetable seeds in one bed. Mustard and small polished peas are a species of seed” (m. Kel 3:2). It’s actually assuming that Jews will plant mustard in their gardens, and merely cautions them from planting them along with certain other seeds.

When I first read that interpretation it sounded very radical and revolutionary. I now realize that it’s nonsense. You can look up Leviticus 7:13 or Amos 4:5 to realize that Israel was cool with yeast, or you could just walk into a Jewish delicatessen today and order a pastrami sandwich on rye bread with mustard, and then try to make the argument that Jews don’t know what they’re doing with yeast and mustard seed.

The newer interpretation that I find far more compelling came from A.J. Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus. She argues that one of the main takeaways from the Parable of the Mustard Seed is that “some things need to be left alone. Keep fiddling with the dough and it will not rise; keep exposing the seed to air and it will not germinate… We are part of a larger process, and although we start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 2014: 182). If that weren’t a big enough struggle for my Type-A personality, she then adds that the parable teaches us to “get out of the way... We are not always the focus; sometimes we are the facilitator for something bigger than ourselves… The man plants, or even tosses, the seed. Who sowed it is much less important than the tree into which the seed grows” (Ibid.). Again, how difficult is it to get out of the way when we feel as though what we’re doing is of utmost importance.

The parable actually calls us to let down out superhero complexes. To step back, and to know that the Kingdom of God is here and will continue to exist regardless of our involvement in it. Yes, we can sow seeds and promote the continued growth of the Kingdom of God, but by no means is it entirely contingent on what we do or fail to do.

By embracing this realization we can then give God credit for the growth of the Kingdom of God, and also let down the self-righteous feeling that we are the only ones bringing the love and presence of God to those around us. So let’s sow some seeds today. And then step back, and let them grow.

When a Hen Becomes a Cornerstone

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Luke 13:34-35 became one of my favorite texts twelve years ago when I heard a specific interpretation of it at a Bible study. So going into today I assumed I’d write about that beautiful interpretation my sweet and naive brain once absorbed way back when. The issue, though, is that I did some research on the interpretation, and apparently it’s nonsense. So before I get into the story of my disappointment what followed thereafter, here is the text:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord'” (Luke 13:34-35).

It’s a complex text on its own, but when I first read it a teacher made it sound even more dynamic. He told me that when a farm catches on fire, a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and sacrifices herself for her babies. Literally, she’ll remain standing and spreading her feathers, while she’s engulfed in flame, protecting her young from the smoke and the fire. Isn’t that so beautiful and such a perfect image of Christ sacrificing for the church?

Well, I couldn’t find that interpretation in any of my commentaries, so eventually I Googled it. It turns out that Snopes had already done the research for me, and they learned that hens, and birds in general, don’t do that. The story was actually first published by the Illustrated Gospel Series in 1945 as a (fictional) illustration of Christ’s (real) sacrificial love. Since then people have claimed that the National Geographic published a similar story, but National Geographic regretfully denied ever witnessing anything of the sort.

Learning that Luke 13 did not actually allude to the sacrificial hen imagery felt a bit like tripping and falling on my face. After a brief mourning period, however, I stood up, brushed myself off, and started looking for answers about Luke 13 in a way better source: the Bible. 

The last line of Luke 13:35 states, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This phrase shows up a few other places in the biblical text, and is rooted in Psalm 118. Looking at the context of Psalm 118, we have the writer enduring persecution and rejection from all of the nations, but the Lord strengthens and restores him (v. 1-21). Then we read, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22), meaning that they raised him up from out of the quarry, out of the depths, to be elevated and exalted. And the Psalm ends in praise to the Lord.

So in Luke 13, Jesus doesn’t allude to a sacrificial hen, but rather points us to Psalm 118 and the story of a man who experiences persecution from all sides and whom the Lord ultimately raises and exalts. Jesus connects himself to the one who the nations reject, and he claims his identity as the stone that the builders rejected, who becomes the cornerstone. In essence, Jesus associates himself with a gigantic and complex narrative that would have been familiar to his readers and contextualizes his role within the world.

I loved that sacrificial hen interpretation for years. However, looking at that story in contrast to the connection to Psalm 118 shows how easily we can limit the biblical text from the big and beautiful message that it intends to convey. With the sacrificial hen story, we end up with a dead mother hen surrounding her baby chicks. We don’t see any redemption, any resurrection, any resolution. When we read Luke 13 in conjunction with the Psalm that Jesus actually wanted us to think of, though, we see the full narrative of an individual who is rejected, who is beaten down and persecuted, and who, through the faithful love of God, is ultimately raised up and honored so that all proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Futility or Fruitfulness

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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” This statement is widely attributed to Albert Einstein. Can’t we all relate to it? That feeling of futility, when you continue to work, and yet the results don’t seem to pay off?

In Luke 5 Jesus comes across a group of fisherman as they’re experiencing this frustrating feeling of futility. They had given up fishing and were washing their nets when Jesus climbed into one of the boats and asked them to push out into the water. Jesus taught them for some time, and then asked Simon to drop his net into the water. Simon responds, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” He’s exhausted, and the last thing he wants to do is to repeat the same thing he futily did all night. Then, he says, “But at your word I will let down the nets” (v. 1-5). Simon let down the nets, and they caught so many fish that their nets began breaking. Their friends assisted them, and they filled both boats to the degree that the boats began sinking. Simon Peter fell down and confessed before Jesus, and Jesus stated, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” All of the men then left their boats and all of their goods and began following Jesus (v. 6-11).

At first, the men believed that Jesus was encouraging them to simply do the same thing they had been doing all along; encouraging their futility. When they listened to him and followed his direction, though, Jesus showed that he could provide far more than they knew.

Because it’s election season I have been watching more TV than I usually do. I’ve begun noticing all of the commercials that seem to repeat one another. Yesterday I saw five different weight loss ads, three refinancing ads, and seven online college ads. That’s not to mention the gazillion product-based ads that do their best to show us how much better our lives can be if we have more stuff (one even suggested that floral pants will do the trick). These sorts of ads encourage that sense of futility by sending messages that communicate,

“Try this new weight loss method — they you’ll be happy.”

“This is the best refinancing option — soon you’ll be rich!”

“Buy these bright pants — you’ll then be pretty, and may even meet Elizabeth Banks!”

All of these ads promote futility. What we learn from the story of the fisherman in Luke 5 is that it takes a faithful and loving teacher, and a sensitive and powerful God to truly accomplish what we desire. We can work and buy and continue to fight the same fight over and over again, but without the influence of the One who is above us and with us, we will only inspire futility.

And moreover, while that incredible God gives freely, we are not mere recipients of the gifts of a divine Santa Claus — rather, we are called to participate in the Kingdom of God. When we leave our nets and boats (and weight loss scams, credit card debt, and all that we thought would fulfill us), we not only experience the fruitfulness that God provides, but we also get to share with others. We commit ourselves to walking with God into the world and spreading fruitfulness to all who toil.

Sacred Interruptions

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Do you ever have days that feel constantly interrupted? You woke up with a specific set of tasks to accomplish, yet each time you begin working on one, something else needs your attention. Your neighbor stops by, or your sink stops up, or your car starts making a crazy sound, or you get an urgent email from work, and all of a sudden your plans of a productive day have vanished.

Jesus has numerous days that follow that same pattern. He plans on accomplishing one task, and then others confront him in the meantime. In biblical studies we call this an intercalationIt’s when the writer is telling us one story, and then all of a sudden he inserts another story smack dab in the middle of the first. This takes place in Mark 5:21-43, a story in which Jesus heals two people. It’s a rather large chunk of text, and the stories of the two healings weave together in an intercalation.

We start with the story of Jairus, who approaches Jesus and asks him to heal his 12 year old daughter, who is about to die (v. 21-24). This becomes Jesus’ top item on his to-do list, and immediately goes with Jairus to heal the daughter.

But then, as Jesus is walking with Jairus to heal the daughter, a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years approaches Jesus and grasps the hem of his robe in an attempt to be healed as well (v. 24-34). Jesus drops everything when he feels his “power go out of him” (v. 30). He turns his attention now to healing the bleeding woman.

As Jesus converses with the bleeding woman, some of Jairus’ messengers inform him that the 12 year old daughter died, and Jesus overhears their discussion (v. 35). Jesus’ attention then shifts back to the healing of Jairus’ daughter, which had originally been his top concern. Jesus continues on to Jairus’ house and states that the daughter is only sleeping, and resurrects her (v. 35-43). At last, mission accomplished.

This is a busy story; there are a lot of moving pieces. And this is the same for all stories of intercalations — they convey how busy and unexpected life can be. Ultimately, Jesus always comes back to his original task and completes what he had intended to accomplish. However, rather than viewing the interruptions as pesky and irritating, they actually serve to expand the breadth and meaning of Jesus’ message.

We’re busy people, aren’t we? When I wake up in the morning I have a list of things that I intend to accomplish throughout the day. And without fail, I always manage to get interrupted. I don’t mean distracted. That’s different — if I see a video of a puppy on a friends’ Facebook wall and decide to spend the next 15 minutes googling dog breeds, that’s my own weakness for puppies. I mean real interruptions. The A/C Compressor in my vehicle shutting down and leaving my car in a heaping, smoky mess for two days; getting an urgent email from work that takes two hours to resolve; even getting a phone call from a dear friend who just needs someone to listen. Real interruptions that matter in the larger picture.

When Jesus encounters these intercalations he remains calm, takes care of the matters at hand, and continues on with his mission. More than that, though, Jesus is able to demonstrate far larger points by focusing on the intercalations. In the Mark 5 text we see one woman who was bleeding for 12 years and we have a daughter who is 12 years old. Jesus first heals the woman of her 12 year bleeding, and then heals the daughter who everyone else believed was dead. Not only does Jesus show his ability to heal, but he also makes the broader point that these women are supposed to point us to the 12 tribes of IsraelBy working with the intercalation the reader can grasp the larger point that Jesus not only heals individuals, but also that Jesus came to restore the 12 tribes of Israel.

If only we could treat our interruptions in the same way. Rather than fighting them off, or feeling irritated and bothered by them, we can take a step back to see how they ultimately impact and shape our days. And at the end of the day, perhaps we will find that we have accomplished far more than we originally intended, that we solved bigger problems, built greater relationships, and created more goodness and love in the world than we ever imagined we could.