Our place in line

2017-09-24 10.03.03

An unused #SMS17 comes in handy

Our culture lives out a interesting interpretation of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Despite the most coveted job in any elementary school being that of line leader, by the time we reach adulthood, something switches, and somehow, being in the tail end of a procession becomes the place of honor.  The picture above was my view from the tail end of the procession at the 10 o’clock service yesterday.  Led by the cross, the symbol of Christ’s passion and our salvation, flanked by two candles, which remind us that the light of Christ is present whenever two or three are gathered, the choir, server, the Gospel bearer, Eucharistic minister, ministry intern, two deacons, and myself paraded into the chancel as we began our worship of God.  As the Celebrant, my place was at the tail end of the line.  In the academy, this “pride of place” often goes to professors with the longest tenure and then Deans.  At a wedding, the bride takes up the rear of the procession.  So often, it seems that we would honor those who bring up the rear.

As I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that, my place in the end of the line isn’t the place of honor, but really is the right place for me to be.  As part of his ongoing back and forth with the religious leadership, Jesus offers something of a riddle to his interlocutors.   After they answer correctly, or so Matthew would lead us to believe (but that’s for another post), Jesus sums up his teaching with these words, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I’m not sure why, but I felt led to look into the words that are translated as “are going… ahead.”  It turns out it is one word, proagousin.  The primary Strong’s definition for this word is stronger than “to go ahead,” being rendered as “to lead forward.”  My mind immediately went back to that procession yesterday, the letters that precede and follow my name, and the reality that in that procession, I was being led into the kingdom of God by children, by sinners, by gentiles, and by the grace of God.  Those who lead the procession into the Kingdom of Heaven have the pride of place because they are the ones who recognize, most fully, their need for forgiveness.  Those of us who are professional ministers can often forget that we aren’t the sum total of the compliments we hear in the receiving line.  Rather, our place at the tail end of the procession is often the result of our own failure to remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are in the lineup at all.

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The Kingdom is like…

While I enjoy all three weeks of Parable Season, my distrust of all things allegory makes week three the shining star.  Clearly the disciples, and Matthew’s readers, have failed to fully grasp Jesus’ drawn out metaphorical parables.  They, and we, have been further confused by his attempts to explain them.  And so this week, Jesus tries a different tack, straight up simile.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like…

  • A Mustard Seed
  • Yeast
  • A Treasure Hidden in a Field
  • A Merchant in Search of a Fine Pearl
  • A Net Thrown into the Sea

These are five very different ways of explaining the kingdom.  None of them is able to carry the full weight of explaining the Kingdom of Heaven.  In fact, combined, they still don’t even begin to do the job justice.  Still, there is plenty to learn from these five short similes about the Kingdom.

  • The Mustard Seed – the Kingdom of Heaven may look unassuming at the start, but when it takes root, it changes the very landscape of your heart.  From shrub to tree to a home for the birds of the air (those pesky things that stole the seed back in the Parable of the Sower), the Kingdom changes everything.
  • Yeast – the Kingdom of Heaven is subversive: working through an inordinate amount of flour, even this little bit of yeast can change the world.
  • A Treasure – this is a tough one.  It seems as though Jesus is telling the disciples to be unscrupulous.  It is awfully unethical to find a treasure, not tell the land owner, and buy it at market value, but Jesus did once tell his disciples to be shrewd like the children of this age and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
  • A Merchant – the Kingdom of Heaven is of great value, in fact, it will cost you everything, even your very life.  This is the parabolic version of “take up your cross and follow me.”
  • A Net – though God desires the restoration of all of creation, there will come a day when everyone will have to make a choice: do I want to live in God’s love or not?  I believe there is a hell, though I hope it will be empty at the second coming when everyone, experiencing the overwhelming love of God, chooses to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that is so unspeakably awesome (I use that overused word very intentionally), that even Jesus can’t explain it fully in human terms.

Eschatology and Parables – Oh My!

As I tried to make clear last week, I love parables because they aren’t easy to understand.  This presumes that I enjoy working at difficult theology, which I do, but everyone has their limit.  So it is when the lectionary invites us to handle the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  For the second straight week, we are given a juicy parable by Jesus.  This one even starts with a variant of my favorite opening line, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

If all we had was the parable itself, this would be an interesting enough exercise.  What does it mean that in his description of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus includes a) the enemy and b) the enemy’s fruit?  How does Jesus’ acknowledgement of the presence of evil help us to understand the world around us better?  How does it open up our imaginations around the Kingdom of God?  What does it say that the farmer allows the tares (weeds) to grow alongside the good wheat throughout the growing season?  These are just a few of the several difficult questions that are brought up in this week’s parable.

But the lesson doesn’t end there.  For the second straight week, we are also given an allegorical interpretation from the lips of Jesus himself.  As I said in my sermon yesterday, I don’t particularly like allegories because I think they make the parables too easy to understand.  This is not the case this week, however.  This week, Jesus raises the bar by including in his allegory “the harvest is the end the age.”  So not only do we have the depth of the parable to deal with, but we also have eschatology or in more common parlance, the End Times.  Matthew’s Gospel has a strong eschatological bend to it.  He spends most of chapters 24 and 25 expanding on Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  Given the first century context and the notion that Jesus was coming back “before some in this generation fell asleep,” it makes sense that the Gospel writers would deal with the end of the age, but now 2,000 years later, when eschatology is mostly the purview of a few quack authors who enjoy clothesline theology, the average Mainline preacher will be well advised and probably hard pressed to carefully handle the eschatology in Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel equipped to deal with the eschatology in this parable adequately.  I’m not preaching this week, so I probably won’t take the time to do the research, but I will pray for those who are preaching this Sunday.  It is a daunting task.  If you are preaching this week, I’d love to hear how you handle to deal with this parable and its inherent eschatology.  And if you have a go to resource, be sure to link to in in the comments.