A Wal*Mart Theologian

One of the gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to attend continuing education events.  I’ve been to all sorts over the years, from emergent church events to Episcopal Church conferences to one United Methodist Conference sponsored gathering to a one-day social media bootcamp.  Even my four summers in the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee counts.  The broad spectrum of opportunities has helped me continue to grow in my ministry, but I’ve also started to notice some similarities.  Most, if not all, of these events end up in small group sessions.  Most, if not all, of these small group sessions require you to make an introduction.  I’ve introduced myself in a lot of different ways over the last decade, but perhaps my favorite is as a Wal*Mart Theologian.  That is, I am a firm believer that what I am preaching on Sunday morning has to also work in the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart. (1)

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This understanding of theology and preaching came back to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  This passage offers two fairly familiar parables from Jesus.  The first, maybe less commonly cited one, is about the sower who scatters seed, which grows, though he knows not how.  It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how it is constantly in motion, coming ever closer to our experience, even if we can’t always see it or feel it.  The second parable is of the mustard seed, which, though small, will grow to be a large bush that offers shade to the birds.  It too is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how seemingly insignificant acts of love and grace can make a profound impact on a world desperate for redemption.

The particular nuanced understanding of what Jesus is saying isn’t what took me to the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart, however.   Instead, it is Mark’s narrative reflection on the way Jesus taught that caught my attention.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…

Jesus shared the Kingdom of God with the crowds by way of commonly understood images.  He didn’t sit in the Synagogue and pontificate academically about a systematic theology of soteriology, but rather, he told the people stories, using the world they knew, to try to explain the unexplainable love of God.  Jesus was a first-century Wal*Mart Theologian, and by way of parables, which we often scratch our heads over, dig too deep to understand, and make super complicated, he taught the people of God’s saving love.

While you are working hard, dear reader, to prepare a sermon for Sunday on the content of these two parables, remember the example of our Lord and simply tell your people of God’s mercy, grace, and love in a language all can understand.


(1) Wal*Mart made me angry several years ago, so I rarely shop there anymore.  I guess I’m a Kroger Theologian now, but regional grocery store brands don’t carry the same weight.

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Maybe it is about money

Life in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fairly bare bones.  I don’t say this as a negative thing, but just stating the reality of the situation.  When the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida carved out the CGC in the late 1970s, they were very careful not to give away too much of their extra oil, to borrow an image from last week’s Gospel lesson.  Alabama kept Montgomery and all of its endowed funds.  Florida kept Tallahassee and all of its endowed funds.  Life in the CGC was pretty much lived congregational pledge payment to congregational pledge payment.  The same was true in Foley, a congregation barely 100 years old, built in a community that for the better part of 75 of those years was mostly small and agricultural.  In that context, the parable of the talents that we will hear on Sunday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of money.  If you don’t have silver talents to invest, you have to hear this story another way.

Over the past decade, I have read this story to be about other types of talents, be they art, numbers, music, wood-working, electrical, computer, or the rare-as-a-unicorn ability to work with middle school youth.  I stand by this reading valid.  I follow Paul’s teaching that we are each called to invest our gifts and talents for the building up of the Church, and to squander those gifts by hiding them in a hole, is to succumb to the sin of laziness.  Where I have been wrong in the past, however, is in suggesting that this parable might only be about these talents.

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Maybe it because the Finance Ministry Team will be ironing out the 2018 budget this afternoon, and I’ve been knee deep in endowment fund reports for the first time in my ministry, but now that I’m serving a congregation with some named funds that exists in a Diocese with the same, I’m beginning to realize that the parable of the talents might also actually be about the money entrusted to our care. and how we make wise investments of it for the up building of the Kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be wise stewards of Creation, so too are we to make smart choices when it comes to the hard earned money that others leave, either through gift or bequest, to the Church for its long-term sustainability.  Part of those smart choices are ensuring the money is placed in sound investments with good long-term strategy.  The other part is making us of that income.  Nobody gives money to the Church so it can sit in a bank account and make interest for ever.  People give money to the Church for mission, for ministry, and for the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  As much as I don’t really like this parable being about real money, and as much as I know that it is not only about real money, I can no longer deny that yes, perhaps Jesus did have actual money in mind as he told his disciples this parable.

You think you know a guy

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Last week’s parable about the 10 bridesmaids had lots of people becoming members of the Jesus Seminar ready to cast a pocket full of black beads that Jesus didn’t actually say these things.  It is really hard to believe that Jesus would a) lift up the selfishness of the wise bridesmaids, b) call anyone foolish, c) declare that even his close followers who maybe didn’t quite get it would find themselves outside of his grace, and d) compare all of this to the kingdom of heaven.  We think we know Jesus and how the grace of God works, and because this story doesn’t compute, we want to throw it away as an editorial decision on the part of Matthew or some later redactor.

As I began to read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, I began to wonder if Jesus knew that this would be the reaction to his eschatological teachings, and so he told this parable to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what we think we know about Jesus isn’t all there is to know.  The third slave, you know, the one who dug a hole and buried his single talent because he was afraid of a master who “was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” thought he knew his master, but as with everyone whom we meet, there is always more to learn.

Remember that these parables are all coming late on Tuesday in Holy Week.  It is not unreasonable to think that the Disciples are absolutely clueless as to what Thursday evening through Sunday will bring.  They can sense things getting tense between Jesus and the religious authorities, but they’ve experienced that before.  Whole crowds have had stones in hand, and yet Jesus walked away, unscathed.  They think they know how this will end.  They think they know what the Messiah will do.  They think they know Jesus, but there is still much to learn.

One of the harder lessons they will learn will come when, like in the parable, Jesus departs from them.  How will they respond?  Will they be about the work he had given them authority to do?  Will they continue to expand his ministry?  Or, will they live in fear, unable to do anything but bury the ministry to which they were called?  After his resurrection and ascension, the same questions will arise as they stand, slack-jawed, staring into heaven.  Will they use the gifts they’ve been given to spread the Good News, or will they return, in fear, to the lives they once knew?

We think we know Jesus.  We think we know what he is about.  We think, but there are always surprises.

Be Ready – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon did not get recorded, however, you can still read today’s sermon.


I want to begin this morning by taking a moment to brag on your deputation to Diocesan Convention.  The folks from Christ Church were among the most diligent in the whole diocese.  If it was on the schedule, they were there.  They put up with a Rector who had never been through a Convention in Kentucky before and so didn’t have special plans for cocktails or a fancy dinner in the hoity toity Crescent Hill neighborhood.  They were thoughtful, discussed things well among themselves, and are engaged in the work of the Diocese.  You should be proud of Deacon Kellie, Sharon Valk, Billy Adams, Belinda Palmer, Jan Funk, and Hamp Moore.  You can even be proud of our Parish Administrator, Heath Harper, who used his continuing education time to attend the Convention.  Your Rector, on the other hand, well, I really was on my best behavior, except I do have the unfortunate tendency to get hangry.  For those who maybe don’t know what hangry means, it is a combination of hungry and angry, and is what happens when a lack of food makes you grumpy.  I am most prone to becoming hangry when I make bad choices, like I did yesterday morning.

After a rough night’s sleep, breakfast felt like it came very early.  Even so, I made good decisions.  I ate a bagel, some fruit, and had a decent cup of coffee.  Noonday Prayers and the lunch break, though close to five hours away, seemed easily doable.  As a group, we attended the hearing on the budget, which ended 20 minutes early, thanks be to God, and we prepared for the morning business session.  As everyone got ready, two different groups of people came by each table and dropped off candy.  Yesterday, the tempter looked like the Rector of Grace Church, Paducah and a nice woman in a red apron with handfuls of Fun Size candies and Hershey Miniatures.  It didn’t take long before I unwrapped my first Krackle bar.  Having grown up 40 minutes from Hershey, Pennsylvania, those miniatures are a real weakness for me.  Naturally, I quickly opened another.  Later, I ate a Milky Way and a two-pack of Starbursts: pink and orange.  Boy were they good.  As the morning wore on, however, the sugar rush that followed those several small pieces of candy wore off, and by the time 11:30 came around, I was crashing back to earth and in desperate need of some lunch.

The poor soul who unwittingly, and thankfully, unknowingly caught the full brunt of my hanger was the good man who re-presented the budget to us for adoption.  He was doing a decent job, taking the 40 minute presentation he had given at 8am and turning it into a 20 minute rehearsal of the 2018 budget, but because I had heard it all before and, more so, because of the negative effects of a sugar crash, I spent most of those twenty-one minutes vacillating between checking my watch and rolling my eyes.  As he finished, at 12:01, I calculated that with 99 deputies in attendance, we had spent close to 35 man-hours listening to a report we were all supposed to have heard three hours earlier.  “How long, O Lord, how long!?!  How long must I wait for lunch?”

Yesterday, I was a foolish bridesmaid.  I had failed to prepare for what I should have known to be inevitable.  Diocesan Conventions always run behind.  There are always redundant reports.  There are never not silly questions.  But I had no extra oil for my lamp, and so, in that moment, I found myself outside of the joy of the bridegroom, looking for a way in.  Like the foolish bridesmaids, I was frustrated, more by my own lack of preparation than by the inevitableness of the situation.

This parable that Jesus tells is a glimpse into the end of time.  He tells it, not just randomly, but after some prompting from his disciples.  It is late in the day on Tuesday in what we call Holy Week.  Jesus has spent the day arguing with the Temple leadership.  They’ve questioned his authority and sought to catch him in verbal traps.  Jesus, for his part, has not backed down. He’s told parables about their destruction. He has called them hypocrites, and wept over what Jerusalem has become.  It has been a really long, really tense day when Jesus and his disciples finally leave the Temple to return to Bethany.  Hoping for some innocuous conversation to pass the time, a few of them begin to discuss architecture.  They note how majestic the Temple is, and Jesus, still on edge tells them that soon “not one stone will be left upon another.”  Matthew indicates that the rest of the trip was silent.  Safely back on the Mount of Olives, the disciples mustered up enough courage to engage Jesus again, this time asking him to expand on the warning of destruction.

“When will this be?  What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”  What follows is two chapters of Jesus teaching about the coming apocalypse.  False prophets, persecutions, and the desolating sacrilege will precede the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory, but, Jesus warns them, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24.36).  Yet even as no one knows when it will happen, Jesus is clear in his warning, “be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24.44).  It is in response to that warning that Jesus tells this parable as part of a series of parables about what it looks like to be ready.

This parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, which was written for a unique community, fifty or sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The first generation of disciples were almost all dead, and this raised some real questions in the Church.  As we heard in the lesson from First Thessalonians, written thirty years before Matthew’s Gospel, there was already some long-standing concern about why Jesus had not yet returned.  The common expectation among the first Christians was that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow, if not sooner.  They had kept vigilant, but after twenty years of waiting, they were nervous they had somehow missed out.  Thirty more years later, you can imagine that Matthew’s community was beginning to think that maybe Jesus would never come back.  Knowing Jesus, however, they should have expected this.  The delay of the bridegroom was inevitable.

Jesus was always making his disciples wait.  As they traveled, he would constantly stop to talk with some beggar on the side of the road.  When he would heal someone, the whole nearby village might show up looking for help.  When Jesus saw an opportunity to stop and teach about the kingdom of God, he would do it.  Given their experience, the Disciples had every reason to expect that Jesus’ return would be delayed.  Matthew’s community, having heard the stories over and over again, should have had every reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t be coming back tomorrow.  And yet, like I was yesterday, they got anxious.  Waiting is hard.  Sisters and brothers in Jesus were dying.  They didn’t know what to do with that.  Two thousand years later, he has still not returned.  I’m not sure we know what to do with that.

As much as parables often have deep meanings woven within the details, I think the lesson we learn from this parable is quite simple.  Be ready.  The bridegroom has been and will be delayed, but the work of the Kingdom will go on.  We had better be prepared to wait for as long as it takes.  Friends will die in the Lord.  People will be hard to deal with.  Conventions will test your patience.  Life will happen.  In the meantime, we must be sure to pack some extra oil: spending extra time in prayer, being immersed in the Scriptures each day, and engaging in work of loving service.  Don’t make the mistake I made yesterday morning.  Don’t fill up on empty calories that will quickly flame out and leave you hangry, but rather, be about the Gospel work of filling your lives with good lamp oil, for the Son of Man is coming, but at an unexpected hour.  Amen.

A Modern Day Parable

“It takes a village to raise a child.”  I doubt then First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was the first person to coin this phrase as the title of her 1996 book on the status of children in America, but she certainly has brought it into our common vernacular.  Things like this don’t just happen, even if put forward by famous people.  Instead, they have to make some sense.  Anyone who has raised a child knows that you can’t do it in isolation.  It requires the support of educators, doctors, neighbors, family, friends, and hopefully a community of faith, do do the hard work of raising a child.  Of course, as with many idiomatic phrases, this one has grown beyond its original context.

It takes a village is a reality for many of life’s challenges.  It takes a village to run a church.  It takes a village to operate a successful school system.  On a smaller scale, yesterday, I was reminded that it takes a village to write a sermon.  Whether it is my go-to preaching resources from WorkingPreacher.org, SAMUEL Sermon Seeds, Dear Partner in Preaching, or any number of the other great resources at TextWeek.com, without input from outside sources, my village of mentors, my preaching would be much less fruitful.  The same is true for you, Dear Reader.

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Yesterday, I admitted that the struggle was real as I prepared for Sunday’s sermon on the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids.  My usual village was letting me down; contradicting each other at every turn.  “It is a metaphor for the delayed eschaton.”  “Some think it is only a metaphor, but is a much larger allegory.”  “Foolish readers would see this through the lens of allegory.”  AHHHHHHH!  So I turned to you, and asked for your insights.  Several of you responding, for which I am exceedingly grateful.  It really does take a village.

What I learned in yesterday’s real life parable is that while I can’t rewrite Jesus’ parable, I can certainly name that it is not the fullness of what God has in mind for his kingdom.  The village of people of who read this blog had oil to share, and they did.  They didn’t hoard it for themselves, hoping to preach a better sermon than me, but they invited me to share in their insights, and to experience their joy.  That is, I think, what God actually has in mind for us.  It isn’t that we should keep the oil of our salvation to ourselves, but that we should freely share it, confident that in the Kingdom of God, there is more than enough to go around.

In our parable for Sunday, there are 10 bridesmaids.  Five of them are foolish.  Five of them are wise.  None of them are able to fully grasp the abundant grace that God is offering in the Kingdom Jesus came to announce.  If I were into allegories, I might think that the five foolish bridesmaids were the Pharisees and the five wise ones were the Disciples, and I would be quick to note that throughout the Gospels, all of them fail to fully grasp what Jesus is trying to do in his ministry.

Thanks for being a part of a real life parable this week, Dear Reader.  Thanks for letting me be a part of your village, and thank you for being a part of mine.

Careful weeding

For a short period of time between “A Bored Seminarian” and “Draughting Theology,” this blog was called “Digging up my own Foundation.”  It was a nod, esoteric as it may have been, to my early understanding of the priesthood as one who empowers and encourages their congregation until they find themselves essentially out of a job.  When it was pointed out that the best way to shorten that too long title was “Dig up MoFo,” I decided to make a change, but truth be told, that ideal of what parish ministry looked like was a bit short-sighted anyway.  No matter how much encouraging and empowering one does, as an ordained clergyperson, there are still things that I can do that members of the congregation can’t.  The real difficulty of this vocation is learning what one should delegate and what one must do.  Or, to put it in the context of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, what can one safely dig up and hand off and what must remain in the ground.

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Invasive Torpedo Grass is hard to pull up without damaging everything else

In reading my standard preaching resources, the consensus is that Jesus’ farming technique left a lot to be desired.  The weed planted by the evil one was likely darnel, a poisonous rye grass that until it comes to seed, is impossible to differentiate from good wheat.  By the time the slaves would have noticed the problem, the solution they suggest would have been easily done.  That is, the wheat and darnel would have both been pretty well close to harvest anyway, and the damage done in uprooting the weed wouldn’t been fairly insignificant compared to the cost of the darnel seed falling to the ground, germinating, and having another year of bad crop to deal with.  Yet, Jesus instructs the slaves to wait and let the harvesters deal with it.  He is worried that to damage even one good wheat stalk would be a cost too high.  Why is Jesus so careful in his weeding?

The answer comes right at the very beginning of the parable.  Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”  This is a kingdom parable, a story meant to teach a lesson about what it looks like under God’s reign.  God’s reign turns the upside-down world right-side up.  It makes the last first and the first last.  It heals the blind, frees the prisoner, and reaches out to touch the lepers.  God’s reign is a world in which every tear is dried up and the oil of gladness is poured out in abundance.  In the kingdom of the world, darnel doesn’t become wheat and dead men don’t come back to life, but with patience and faith, under the reign of God, both are possible.  When we see the world through the lens of this world, we are quick to grab weeds and toss them into the fire, but God’s view is long range, God’s goal is the restoration of all of Creation, God’s dream is a field full of wheat.  And so, the slaves are told to leave it to harvesters to deal with the good and the bad.  Who knows, by the time the harvest comes around, maybe the greatest miracle of all is that by the grace of God, darnel can become wheat.

A Parable for the Church

Despite our ongoing fascination with it, Jesus didn’t talk much about the institution of the church.  In fact, the only reference to church in the Gospels comes in Matthew’s account.  In chapter 15, Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build his church.  In chapter 18, the word occurs several times as Jesus explains how to handle a fellow Christian, literally a brother, who sins against you.  In the Greek, it appears only three times (16:18, and twice in 18:17) while in the NRSV, the word occurs five times.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew’s Gospel shows an affinity toward the church that would bloom out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It is helpful as we read other portions of Matthew’s Gospel to recall that it was written with the Church in mind.

Which brings me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  As parable season rolls on, Jesus channels his inner Joachim Jeremias by offering a doozy of an allegorical interpretation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  It is tempting to read this parable and think of the individual: how each of us has within our own hearts some good wheat mixed in with some uncontrolled weeds, but that isn’t what Jesus has in mind as he tells this parable.  Instead, as Jesus explains the parable, he has a much wider perspective.  He tells this story about a world in which there is good and there is evil.  As his explanation comes to a close, Jesus says that after the weeds – stumbling-blocks and doers of evil, are carried off to the unquenchable fire, what will be left is a pristine field of wheat that will “shine like the sun.”

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In his allegory, Jesus explains that this wheat that will be left over are the righteous, literally those who conform to the standard of God and are thereby in right relationship with the Father, which with Matthew’s heart for the Church in mind, led me into the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer and the answer to the question on the top of page 855, “What is the mission of the Church?”  “The mission of the Church is to restores all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  That is to say, with apologies for mixing allegories, the reason the Church exists is to work the soil so that the wheat in our hearts chokes out the weeds.  The work of the Church is to help righteousness flourish in our hearts so that when the harvest times comes, there is a whole lot more wheat left shining like the sun than there is weeds burning in the furnace.

To be sure, the Church hasn’t always done a great job of this.  Often, weeds have been actively ignored, which in my flower beds means they grow wildly.  Sometimes, they are pulled up with haste, allowing their seeds to scatter and the roots to remain in tact, which only makes for more weeds a few weeks down the road.  Rarely, are the root causes of weeds addressed and the proper fertilization and watering for wheat utilized in order to facilitate abundant harvests.  All this to say, when I read this as a timely parable for the Church and a call to intentional discipleship training for an abundant harvest, I am quick to realize that we have a lot of work to do to facilitate healthy growth in restoring all people to unity, i.e. right relationship, with God.