Seafood and Righteousness

 Here is a secret. I like food. Usually I eat when I’m hungry, but sometimes I eat just because I think I want something. Jesus must have known this would be the case. Here we are talking about the beatitudes at lunch during lent and today’s beatitude tells us “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

 Unfortunately, I know that my appetite for righteousness is not always as strong as my appetite for these sandwiches we’re eating here today. My appetite for righteousness is not always what it should be.

 Mom and I celebrate our birthdays just two days apart. On account of that we have often shared birthday celebrations. Sometimes we have gone out to eat. While growing up, eating out often meant a place like Wendy’s. On special occasions, we might have gone to the Ponderosa. But on one memorable birthday, when I was in my teens, it was decided we would go to the Red Lobster.

 We had driven past the Red Lobster many times. We knew what it was, it was a place for other people to eat while we were at Wendy’s. But not on this birthday. On this birthday we were Red Lobster people. Our family of six walked in like we belonged there. It was exciting. It felt like going to the fair or some other event. This was a special occasion.

 We received the menus, we looked them over, and when the server came Dad ordered a sampler. The sampler was good. I tried lobster for the first time, crab for the first time, scallops for the first time. But we had not really done our homework, this sampler was not intended for a family of six, and we couldn’t afford Red Lobster prices. It was the hungriest birthday ever. I think we left that night and went to Wendy’s.

 But I knew from that day that I loved seafood. I had enough of a taste to make me want it again. Perhaps that is why I join a group of friends who share this love and occasionally drive down to the MD border just to eat seafood. Honestly, its too far to drive and costs too much, but still we do it because we have a hunger for seafood.

 That gets us on track for what Jesus is talking about. When he talks about a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is not talking about choosing righteousness off a menu as if there are other options just as good. Jesus is interested in a hunger that makes you willing to drive too far and spend too much. Jesus is interested in a hunger that causes you pains until you get your fill. Jesus wants to know if after sampling small portions with your family of six, have you developed a lifetime appetite for righteousness?

 To hunger and thirst for something implies some risk. To hunger and thirst implies there is something you need or else you will die. Jesus is suggesting you can’t live in the kingdom of God without this righteousness.

 These beatitudes come to us as blessings and they help us to understand what it is like to live in a different kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is marked by people who live in certain ways. And this beatitude tells us the kingdom of heaven looks like people who want righteousness so badly they can taste it. And once they get a taste for it, they want more of it, they would be willing to drive far and spend much just to have it. There is nothing they want more, they would sell everything just to have it.

 Jesus wants us to become this kind of people. He doesn’t want us to wait until heaven to behave like this – he prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wants us to desire this stuff now.

 Righteousness becomes important in the gospel. Not too many verses later, Jesus says “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness.” Then, “your righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Then, “don’t practice your righteousness in order to be seen by others.” And then, after telling us not to worry about food and drink and what to wear, he says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness… and these things will be added.” As it turns out, this righteousness is very important stuff.

 Perhaps a starter definition is in order. With help from Scot McKnight, here is a place to begin; 1) righteousness is listening to Jesus, 2) righteousness focuses on God first and not on the approval of others, 3) righteousness is the way kingdom citizens live in a world full of people who do not live that way.

 Welcome to the world of righteousness! Or as Matthew would say “Welcome to the kingdom of heaven!”

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” God knows what we need. God knows we need food and drink (maybe even some occasional seafood), God knows what we need in order to live and wants us to know that greater than any other needs is our need for righteousness. Perhaps the question for us is “how far are we willing to drive for that?”

A Fishing Story

In the Gospel of Matthew there is a fishing story where a coin is found in a fish’s mouth. Who doesn’t love a story like that? Trout season starts March 31, this kind of story might cause us to examine a fishes mouth very carefully while removing the hook.

This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about fishing. We shouldn’t be surprised since he did spend a lot of time hanging out with fishermen. I can almost picture a scene where Peter and Andrew argue with James and John about the best ways to fish the Sea of Galilee. And then they try to pull Jesus into the discussion to settle the issue.

Back to the story about the coin in the fish’s mouth. In some ways it starts like a bad joke. “So, a tax collector, a fisherman, and Jesus walk into Capernaum. And the tax collector said to the fisherman…”

We know how this story goes. But the punchline is not that the coin is where Jesus said it would be. The punchline is that his ability to perform such a miracle affirms his announcement that the Kingdom of heaven is near. The punchline is that citizens of the Kingdom of heaven are not subject to the same duties citizens of the state are subject to. But it also insists that in this Kingdom there is no room for offending the state over something like taxes.

Be on the Lookout

I bet Isaiah 7.14 sounds like Christmas to you. At least it does to me. I can almost hear carols in the background while reading it. It makes me feel like I am opening a Christmas card. I feel a twinge of excitement. I think I can smell Christmas while listening to it. And then, after Isaiah sings it, Matthew sings it again – a remix.

But unlike Matthew, Isaiah was not thinking about Christmas. He was thinking about politics. He was thinking about a clash between prophet and king. He was thinking about how different the world of faith is from the world of fear.

During this time the world power was Assyria. They made the rules and made sure the rules were followed.  The neighbor kings are tired of this and try to get King Ahaz and Judah to join forces to overthrow Assyria. Isaiah goes to the king with a message and a sign. But the king knows how the world works. He knows where the power is. He ignores the request of the neighbors and tries to snuggle up with Assyria. His worst decision, he ignored the message of the prophet. He refused the sign.

The sign that Ahaz ignored becomes important. A woman will be with child. She will have a son. His name shall be Immanuel. Immanuel means literally “God is with us.” A significant part of the sign for Isaiah is timing. Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong the lands of the kings will be forsaken. It seems the child will be living without fear, enjoying meals of curds and honey. In other words, the original sign is to alert the king that God truly is with his people. When this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. Unfortunately, Ahaz refused “God with us.”

Centuries later Matthew repeats the sign of the prophet and paints for us a picture. There is a woman with child. She will have a son. He shall be called Immanuel. Immanuel literally means “God is with us.” We are more familiar with this story. We know something about this child. We might feel a twinge of excitement. The sign is of great importance. When this sign occurs, when this child is born, when this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. This child is the visible physical evidence that God is with us.

Seeds, Soils and the Family Soul

I was recently asked to speak at a retreat and given a dual assignment of addressing the family and a text from the gospels – a parable about a sower, seeds and soils. Other texts may come to mind more quickly or seem more appropriate when we think about family. Yet I rather like it when the church puts us in a conversation with the text that does not seem to naturally fit and then expects us to proceed.

The family may not be the first thing we think of when we read the parable, yet the family is always a context where we attempt to apply the text. The family is a field where we learn much about the Christian faith. In the family we scatter seed in the hope of growing fruit. The family is a field where we learn how to relate to one another and to the world and to God.

Perhaps the family is a perfect context to speak of people as soil. In a family we plant, nurture, feed, water and weed – all in the hope that growth might occur. This may be as good a place as any to point out that it is not our end goal to grow happy, productive people. Our end goal is not to turn you into awesome parents with successful marriages and perfect children. It’s not that we are opposed to such things. It’s just that this is a church retreat and we have much bigger goals. We are raising disciples.

It is basic thought about families and texts to be attentive to what is present and what is not. It is important to realize that the entire system is influenced by who is present or who is absent. This is important to know because the family is dependent on the way the individual pieces work together. Behaviors and actions and words of any one individual will significantly affect the others. The text works the same way. The presence of rocks, thorns, and birds make a difference. Shallow roots, worldly worries and the presence of Satan make a difference. This is not a chance adventure. This is a context where it is important to be intentional. This is where seed grows.

As an aside, it follows the family should be very careful about who is invited into the system. A pet, X Box, cell phones, Netflix, fantasy football, a Visa card, Jack Daniels… these things may seem like casual accessories. But they will fight to become influential in the family system.

A common theme in the family and the parable is growth. When one looks at the reasons for growth or lack of growth in the text it appears to be the type of soil and what is attracted to these soils. In the family it is not birds, rocks or weeds that prevent growth. That would be convenient. When things aren’t going well to blame it on the stinking rocks, lousy weeds, angry birds. Instead we must be intentional about who and what is invited into the family.

We do not want to overlook the cosmic struggle in the parable. In both parable and family we may be interacting with seed, thorns and rocky ground, but also Satan. In what we thought was an ordinary farmer’s field – Satan shows up. In what seems like the everyday activities of raising a family – Satan shows up. The fact is, Satan wants your family. There is a cosmic battle of supernatural forces engaged against one another for our families. If we ever have doubts about whether our families have value, that alone should convince us we are wrong.

While Jesus may not be talking explicitly about family here, he is not really talking about farming either. Jesus often seems to be talking about some subject and then we learn he is actually talking about the Good News of the kingdom. In fact, when Jesus starts talking in parables, Matthew tells us he is sharing secrets of the kingdom.

We do not want to forget the parable is a kingdom story. We read the parables and are put immediately into a context of competing kingdoms. Allegiance is an issue that we must wrestle with. We will be choosing a king. Even an examination of family is within the context of kingdom. It does not escape us that the parable follows a discussion about family. “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, Behold My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” This family discussion and the parable share space in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Yes, family is kingdom discussion. It is noteworthy that the bio family takes a backseat to the family that does the will of the Father in heaven. The text presents us with an unorthodox definition of family.

The parable carries some significance for Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And it is always the out front parable. We are challenged to “Listen.” It may be noteworthy that Jesus starts telling us to listen in the gospel and in Revelation he is still telling us to listen. Perhaps it is implied that we are not only to start listening but are then to never stop listening.

Listening is a big concern in both text and family. Perhaps a tangent is in order; let us talk about the discipline of listening. Let me guess, your children do not listen. Let me guess again, you do not listen to your children. And again, you fall into a trap of thinking that listening to your child is the same as agreement. You feel that listening is the same as giving in to your child’s demands.

This is worthwhile conversation. While the text is interested in listening to words of Jesus, we want to acknowledge what I will call “spillover.” I hope the following helps with what I intend as spillover. 1) We are to love God. 2) We learn that spillover of loving God insists on loving one another. 3) This love is not to stop with loving other followers; we are to love our neighbors as well. 4) This spillover does not stop here; we are to even love our enemies. Thus, while there is not an explicit text that tells us to listen to one another, I suggest that the spillover causes us to listen to one another (including our children). I am suggesting that as followers of Jesus, we become respectful people who graciously are interested in what others have to say (even when we are not in agreement). When the text does not give an answer to the particular situations of our lives, the spillover can help us determine how we should respond. Listening becomes an activity of discipleship.

As this conversation concludes, I suggest the family is a laboratory for discipleship. I am glad we gather as church. For some reason the text is intent on an unorthodox view of family. The text may suggest then that we are gathered as family. We gather as those who desire to do the will of the Father in heaven. This unorthodox New Testament definition of family cannot help but spillover into our bio families. There we are to share the secrets of the kingdom.

A Girl Like Her in a Place Like This?

What is a girl like Rahab doing in a place like this? The Old Testament? Isn’t this supposed to be a religious text? Still, we read “They went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab.”

The story we find in Joshua 2 is fascinating. It is easy to be pulled in by the plot. But then, this is not what we might expect when reading the bible. We might expect to read the bible to learn something religious, perhaps a spiritual lesson or two. Instead we find a story about spies, sneaking around, hiding on the roof, withholding information and secret escapes, lying to the king. Espionage and harlotry? The bible is always full of surprises.

This is not the only place we find Rahab. The Gospel of Matthew tells us “Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab.”  There aren’t many females listed in this family tree, but Matthew wants us to know Rahab is an ancestor of King David. Not only that, she belongs to the family tree of Jesus. What is a girl like Rahab doing in a place like this?

The New Testament is not finished with her yet. In Hebrews 11 we read “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish… after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” Hebrews 11 is a place for people of great faith. And we find Rahab hanging out here with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David. A guy like Joshua is not even listed by name. We don’t find Daniel or Jonah or some others that I met in Sunday School when teachers were trying to hide girls like Rahab from me. What is a girl like Rahab doing in a place like this?

The bible knows life is not a list, we are not only what we learn or recite. Life is an adventure, a story you and I belong to. The bible pulls us into a story because it is our story. The bible knows religion doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t intersect with the rest of life. Text and life always go together, if they do not, neither has much value.

So here we are in this story. Reality is staring us in the face and uninvited guests are walking in and out. But everyone has a place in this story. Would you hide Rahab in your family tree? Would you keep her identity a secret? Would you include her as a person of faith? Would you meet her for coffee? Invite her to church? Save her a seat next to you? Would you include her in the story?

The bible knows what she is about, knows her history, yet clearly calls her by name as part of our story – may we follow its lead.

A Journey of Presence and Absence

“My God, My God…” (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34)

The only words Matthew and Mark report to us from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Both report them in Aramaic so we cannot miss them. The fact they come to us in Jesus’ native language may suggest some emotion. Jesus is not the first to know about being forsaken, he is quoting a psalm. Surely this is not a coincidence; the psalms are part of a collection of songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. Just as Good Friday happens as part of a larger story, this “word” occurs as part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about feeling abandoned by God. Some still feel it.

The cross is not for safe religion. In fact, pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not possible. The cross goes against the way we think the world is supposed to work. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed on the cross. Here is a cry for the abandoned. It exposes a holy God whose plan is victory by weakness.

The Gospel writers do not report the crucifixion in the same way. This reminds us there is more than one explanation for what happened on this day. For some of us, Good Friday and the place called skull is a good match for what we feel. It tells us the truth about suffering and the high cost that comes with the ways of God.

Mark writes after both Peter and Paul had been executed. He writes as other Christians were in danger of execution. It is difficult to know exactly how this would have affected Christians in Rome but we can be certain that they lived in fear.  They may have felt forsaken. In this context, Mark writes to help the church get through the suffering without losing hope for the future or forgetting the Jesus story.  This is a dark Gospel intended to help readers navigate dark days.  The Gospel wants us to know how far God is willing to go.

Raymond Brown talks about crucifixion as gruesome on account of the “screams of rage and pain, the wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair of the unhappy victims.”  Brown goes on, “Yet it was not in rage but in prayer that Jesus screamed his loud cry.”  In a moment of intense emotion, he cries out to “My God.”

During Lent we follow one who knows what it means to feel forsaken. We follow one who experienced unimaginable pain. We follow one who knows how to navigate dark days. We follow one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news. We cannot go where he has not already been.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Father in Heaven, when the time of suffering and darkness come to my life let my mouth speak your name just as Jesus did. Let my eyes be fixed on you and let my hope be in your perfect will, not my circumstance. Even if I feel forsaken let my obedience and your name on my lips be my guide. My feelings may fail me, but you, oh Lord, will never fail me. Even in suffering and humiliation, you will never fail. Place in me a steadfast heart that will obey.”

Praying for Kingdom Come

The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus came preaching “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Later he preaches a longer sermon that we call the Sermon on the Mount. It is also about the Kingdom of heaven. In fact, it is safe to say that Matthew has some kind of obsession with the Kingdom of heaven.

Early in that sermon we are told “heaven is the throne of God.” Later we are told to pray “Your Kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer comes right in the middle of the sermon and we have already been told to take anger seriously, to be generous even with evil people, to make friends with our opponents, and to love our enemies. Now we are praying to be forgiven as we forgive others. We are getting an idea of what it is like for God to rule on earth as in heaven.

Gary W. Burnett labels this a prayer for revolutionaries. At the very least we should be willing to ask the question “what do we expect when we pray for Kingdom come?” After all we are praying for a kingdom different than the one ruled by Herods or Caesars or Pharaohs or Presidents. We are praying for a Kingdom ruled by God. We are praying for God to invade the land and challenge the rule of corrupted humans. We are praying for what God wants, not for humans to continue what they are already doing.

When we pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we acknowledge that God is back in charge and rules through King Jesus. When we pray for Kingdom come we pray that we will live under the rule of King Jesus. When we pray for Kingdom come we acknowledge the certainty that the Kingdom is at hand.

It Doesn’t Stop at Christmas

Matthew chapter two opens with the birth of Jesus and a search for the one born King of the Jews. We have become familiar with this story and its characters; Joseph the husband of Mary, a dreamer born into a kingly bloodline. Magi from the east, willing to give time, effort and treasure in their desire to worship the rightful King. And King Herod, the ruler of a corrupted earthly kingdom who contrasts with the Kingdom of heaven that God has in mind.

Perhaps because of our artificial chapter breaks or perhaps it is due to the obvious years that have passed in between, but we sometimes fail to see how chapter two and three go together. However, it is unnecessary to ask whether Matthew sees a connection between the kingly discussion of chapter two and the announcement made immediately in chapter three that “The Kingdom is at hand.”

This part of the text carries with it romance and heartache, treasure and tragedy, a royal bloodline and an imposter, murder and narrow escape, secrets, espionage, dreams, angels. Just saying, if you open your door and find Magi standing outside, you may be in for a wild ride. But this story about the one born King does not stop there. It takes us into chapter three where we find John the Baptist announcing “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He might as well have said it like this “Your King is at hand.”

It becomes important for us to remember that the story of this Kingdom does not stop with gift giving in Bethlehem. Christmas is not the end of the story. The Kingdom story continues and we are in on it. The Kingdom continues in the ways we choose to follow the rightful King.

Meeting God in the Family Tree

We turn to the gospel for good news and the first thing we find is a family tree. The family tree is more than history. It is an important piece of the text that reveals how God has intervened in history. Here we find God has been deeply involved in the life of a family. In fact He has been actively intervening all along through this family. God is interested in communicating salvation through the most common forms of relationship. By the time we arrive at the New Testament we are well aware that God views salvation as a relational project. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the first place we meet God in the New Testament is a family tree.

The family tree is a constant reminder that we need God. It reminds us that we are never far from someone who is in need of salvation. It reminds us that our own behavior is not always what it should be. The family tree is proof that the bible is rated M for mature. We cannot overlook the disappointing behavior in the family tree. Instead of trying to hide these things, the genealogist lays it out for everyone to see. The skeletons are out of the closet. God seems to view these disappointments as opportunities. The family is a place we find no shortage of opportunities for salvation.

We do not get very far into the gospel before we realize this genealogy is not only about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is our introduction to a family of faith that God remains deeply involved with. In fact by chapter 10 He brings a sword into the biological family and calls us to reorganize our priorities in a way that severs our natural relationships. This reorganization of priorities demands that we realize our family is no longer determined by blood or DNA or our last name. We are called to be members of another family. We belong to a family that is part of God’s plan for salvation. We are the evidence that God is involved with the world, interested in creation, and has invested everything to give salvation. We are participants in God’s relational project.

We do not choose our family. Each of us can think someone in our own families that doesn’t quite fit. Someone who is difficult or embarrassing. Not all of us would have chosen our own siblings or parents or that weird uncle. Yet, they are still family. It is the same in the family of faith. Each of us can probably think of someone we have tried to avoid on a Sunday morning. Someone who talks too much or smells funny or is nothing like us. Yet, God chooses them to belong to this family of faith. We are joined by one thing in common – a desire to follow Jesus. Look around you, like it or not, this is what the family looks like.

We did not choose the people in our family tree. Being connected to some of them may cause us some discomfort. God seems to be in the habit of choosing people unlike us and bringing them into relationship with us. It is unlikely that we would be able to get along with these people on our own. Relationship with such people requires that we keep meeting God in the family tree.

We look to the gospel for good news and the first thing we find is a family tree. The first place we meet God in the New Testament is a family tree. There we find generations and time. We find accomplishment and scandal. There are things we can be proud of and things to be ashamed of. There is pain and hurt and celebration. This family tree is full of reality. The text wants us to know that God is active in the realities of our lives, our families, and the world to bring salvation.

I hope that a reading of Matthew’s genealogy prompts us to look around the sanctuary differently on a Sunday morning. The unlikely group gathered with you is the family that God has chosen to strike a blow against the darkness.

Not Just Another Execution

Early in the Gospel, Matthew opened the heavens, now he tears open the earth.  In the first instance, a voice from heaven announces that this is “my beloved son.”  In the second, a voice on earth (centurion) agrees.  At his birth, a new star in the heavens greeted the “King of the Jews” (2.2,9).  Should we be surprised that the earth would shake at his death?

Matthew’s report of the crucifixion interests all of us.  Mockers at the cross demand a sign.  Here is a sign and it is not a subtle one.  It is fascinating that as Jesus died the veil of the sanctuary is torn in two, the earth is shaking, the rocks are torn open, tombs were opened, bodies of the holy ones were raised and came out of the tombs and were visible to many.

The signs are both negative and positive.  The description is deliberately vague.  Raymond Brown says that Matthew is going for “atmosphere, not details.”  The power of God’s action, not the identity of who is raised, is the issue.  The cross has become part of the in-breaking of God’s power.  These are some of the things connected to this Friday afternoon execution.

We are fascinated by these things because of their unrealistic quality.  We read a text like this and may think of a zombie apocalypse.  We might like to make a movie or a television mini-series out of it.  We like to exercise our imagination.  Some of us might be shocked by this news.  We might find ourselves hoping to read an interview with Anna or Simeon, Zechariah or maybe John the Baptist.  But we are left with a matter of fact statement that Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and the dead rose from their graves. The centurion and his guards were frightened by it.

Why does Matthew share this?  What does he want this text to do to readers?  Matthew may want readers to rethink reality and who is in control.  Those who were making decisions and taking action that day thought they were the ones in control.  Matthew suggests they should not be so sure.  The plan to stop the Jesus movement is not working.  Those who are certain they know the way the world works are wrong.  For example, as Jesus dies, others who were dead begin coming back to life.  Matthew wants us to know that God is willing to work in very dramatic fashion.  Matthew wants us to know that God is capable of extraordinary signs.  A new order has been set in motion.  Things that have never happened before are taking place.

Witnesses of the crucifixion were left with no choice but to know that more happened on that Friday afternoon than just a criminal execution.  When we find ourselves wondering what happened at the cross, the answer is more than we imagined.  There are cosmic implications going on here.  This was no ordinary execution.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that limits are something of our design.  God is in the business of the impossible and willing to go to extravagant measures to get our attention.

A prayer of response from Pastor of Prayer Susan Vigliano; “Father, like those who witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, I too often think that I know the way the world works, or should work.  I pray today that you would shake the ground in my soul until all the places that need new life are awakened to the hope that is in Christ.  I pray that the weight of the Cross would be brought to bear on my own soul.”