If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary, Sermon Series

Current Situation: When We Disagree

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

(Romans 14:1, NRSV)

As students return to school, we are accustomed to gearing up church life for the program year. People who have been traveling return home. Study groups and classes begin again. This year we may be starting things in hybrid fashion, like the kids in my local school system, with some mélange of outdoor and online worship, or allowing only small groups to gather in person. Whatever our plans, there is a different kind of pressure to come back together than we may have felt over the summer, and a diminishing of the distractions that occupied people who may disagree with our decisions to return, or not, to more familiar ways of gathering. 

No matter what pastors or church leaders have discerned, or how thoughtfully, it’s likely some in the community will disagree. For those who have worked hard on plans and protocols, the complaints can sting, particularly when they take the form of a veiled threat to stop giving, or a detailed report on how other churches are doing it differently, or a blistering all-caps email. 

How can we be the church when we disagree?

If we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a warning about “quarreling over opinions.” Whatever you do or eat or observe, he says, do it in honor of and with thanksgiving to God. Among the quarrelsome Romans, some judged their siblings in Christ, and some even despised them. In this contentious season, particularly for those of us in the U.S., where it’s almost too easy to draw a connection between church policies and presumed political stances, we may relate. It’s not just pastors on the receiving end of complaints, and it’s only human to feel disappointed, misunderstood, even betrayed by the mistrust of people we thought we knew well.

It’s important to remember that we are not the first or the only communities of faith to struggle with differences in belief and understanding. We cannot control the opinions of church members and friends, but we can control how we treat them. Paul reminds us that we are all going to be accountable to God. How do we want to be judged in the end? 

When we turn to the gospel, Jesus offers a vivid caution in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. He offers a parable about debt and a “king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) The familiar and uncomfortable story shows the figure with great power behaving with generosity while the figure with little power seizes as much as he can hold onto, causing harm to one of his fellows. The forgiven person cannot see the irony of his action, or does not care. He is looking out only for his own good.

When children are baptized at my wife’s church, she asks the other children if they will show love to the newly baptized, putting it in terms they understand. “Will you show them where to find the snack table? If you see them fall down in the hallway, will you help them get up again?” These basic principles of care for one another ought to be unforgettable to all of us. We don’t knock each other down to get to the snack table first!

How can we be the church when we disagree – particularly in this current situation? 

I believe we start by trying to see one another’s point of view, then by taking the time to explain why we hold ours. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to dehumanize the person who disagrees with us, to devalue their perspective, or denigrate their intelligence. We have examples of such behavior non-stop on social media, sometimes from people we know well. (Maybe even from ourselves.) We’re called to do better, to show some regard for the humanity of the person who disagrees with us. 

We’re called to remember God’s mercy to us and extend that mercy to others. 

For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.

Matthew 13:31-33, Reflectionary

Good Trouble

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." (Matthew 13:33, NRSV)

In looking at this week’s gospel reading, my focus has been on Matthew 13:31-33, the mustard seed and the yeast. As I wrote last week, we may be tempted to assign allegorical roles to the movements in these very brief parables, but instead let’s look at the overall image created. A tiny seed is sown and grows to an unlikely size, thus making a home for many birds. A woman leavens a huge amount of flour that when baked can feed many people. What is the kingdom of heaven like? Something small and hidden does its work and creates something new that is greater than expected and beneficial to many. 

I spent time this weekend reflecting on the life of Congressman John Lewis, whose courageous and faithful actions over his lifetime influenced and benefited many. I’m wondering today, what if the kingdom of heaven is like good trouble? It was a phrase he used repeatedly, in speeches and even on Twitter. 

Despair is a familiar feeling when we watch video of protestors assailed by federal police in camo and wonder what we can do, or see the COVID-19 infection rate climb in many communities across the U.S., or moderate conflicted conversations among church leaders about returning (or not) to in-person worship. The cure comes in our God-inspired actions.

As the poet Eve Ewing writes, “‘good trouble’ is powerful as a shorthand for the idea that disrupting the rules in pursuit of the greater good is honorable & righteous.” So, how is the kingdom of heaven like good trouble? It’s a powerful question for individuals but also for the church as a collective. These times insist we disrupt the rules that have worked for us in the past.

What greater good are we growing? What seeds will we sow as we reinvent what it means to be the church? What spreading network of care and habitation can we build even while our worship takes place at a distance? St. Paul’s UCC in West Milton, PA, had just taken over a local food bank when the pandemic hit and had to immediately expand its reach as area residents faced layoffs and economic uncertainty over the past four months. 

What are we nurturing? The yeast in the parable is not like the packets we have shared with each other during the Stay-at-Home orders but rather an old-fashioned sourdough. It takes time and dark and quiet to ferment and reach its full capacity, and it requires continued care to stay alive. This image connects for me to the Wall of Moms who joined the nightly protests this weekend in Portland, Oregon, making their own good trouble and setting an example for anyone who thinks that protesting is for someone else. 

(Bev) Barnum, who is Mexican American, teamed up with Don’t Shoot Portland, a Black-led advocacy group that has been fighting for social change in Portland since 2014. They are currently demonstrating for justice in the July 10 shooting death of teenager Shai’India Harris.

“We are just amplifying their message,” Rebecca, another mom that joined Barnum, told CNN. “Parents have always been out there protesting. Black mothers have been doing this forever trying to get justice for their children.”

From Dozens of Moms formed a human shield via CNN

“We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, reflecting on both parables.*

Our leadership plants the seeds. Our actions incorporate the needed leaven. Our collective care keeps the movement alive. It’s good trouble, and necessary trouble, and I hope it’s an expression of the kingdom of heaven.

I’m influenced this week by re-reading the work of Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Harper Collins, 2014, pp. 166-167. Levine reviews classic Christian interpretations of the parables, then offers a different lens both from her own Biblical scholarship and the context of Jesus’ time.

Matthew 13:24-30, Reflectionary

It’s a blur

Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Matthew 13:40, NRSV

There’s a long flower bed under the bow window in our kitchen, facing the street in front of our house. I enjoy it in the spring, when daffodils predominate. From a distance right now, it’s a green, summery blur. Up close, I can differentiate between shrubs and weeds – usually. I am not a gardener, but most weeds offer some clue in the form of raggedy edges or accelerated growth or stubborn attachment at the root, allowing me to recognize them. 

This week’s gospel lesson offers a more complicated scenario. Jesus taught in quotidian parables, and this agrarian example has a hero and a villain. The planter has done a good thing, planting wheat seeds, but the enemy has come on the scene while everybody sleeps to sow weeds in the midst. Although the workers offer to get busy weeding, the planter will wait patiently to protect the good wheat and allow it to grow to its full maturity. Then the weeds and the wheat can be sorted. 

There’s an approach to this text that says the wheat and the weeds looked alike until fully mature, thus the need to wait instead of ripping things up, and there’s another that uses the parable to build a timeline awaiting Armageddon. (I am not kidding; you can find a graphic timeline if you do a Google image search for “wheat weeds bible.”) In Matthew 13, Jesus has been teaching from a boat, to get some distance from the crowd. At the end of the day, he retreats to a house, where the disciples have to ask him for an explanation. Although Jesus in the missing verses of this passage assures the disciples they understand him, unlike the crowd, Matthew’s one-for-one gloss reduces a parable to an allegory as if the gospel writer is not so sure about the reader’s comprehension, either. 

I wrote, in 2011, “God does not exclude prematurely, because God doesn’t want to uproot what is still coming to fruition. God waits for the harvest. Maybe we’re all both wheat and weeds. Maybe we’ll be be gathered in and sorted out as individuals and as churches, not discarded ‘here one group and there the other’ but instead given a chance to come to terms with the ways we’ve been both wheat and weeds, so closely intertwined that we can’t always tell the difference ourselves.” (From In the Weeds – July, 2011.) 

That personal approach to the text spoke to the congregation I served then. In 2020, it’s the collective that speaks to me. Sometimes it is hard to sort out what is good from what is evil without destroying what is good. If that isn’t an image for this moment! In the congregations you serve, people of deep faith, people who love each other and would care for each other and members of the community in times of need, might also disagree passionately about issues that we cannot ignore right now. The seed sown by the enemy, from one perspective, might be QAnon posts or White House talking points about mask-wearing, while from another the evil seeds are the guidelines recommended by the CDC or a Democratic governor. When we read it that way, we may be tempted to follow Matthew down the allegorical path.

Good? Or evil?

I believe we can tell this story as holistic, speaking to all people and for all people. I am not recommending we embrace “both sides-ism,” but rather that we acknowledge the raggedy edges of our own stubborn attachments and lift up the faith values that hold us together. Our shared reckoning with the difference between good and evil in this moment is hard, but it holds our saving hope. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a sower who waited patiently and watched the green, summery blur grow into its fullness. May we be as patient with each other’s growth, in this fraught moment.