Wednesday, July 20, 2011

“Special” People
Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43[1]
As a child, like many of you I was raised on the great American myth. You know, it’s the one where you’re told that you can be anyone you want to be and do anything you want to do. It’s the myth that I’m “special.” Now, I don't mean "special" in the sense of having a healthy sense of one's uniqueness and value. I mean "special" in the sense of having special privileges, special benefits, special advantages. I think one of the hardest lessons in life for those of us raised on that myth is to come to grips with the reality of life. The reality is that each of us is born with a set of circumstances, a genetic inheritance, a personality that, try as we may, we can no more change than a leopard can change its spots or a zebra its stripes. I think my generation especially has had great difficulty accepting the reality that I’m not “special.”
It seems to me that religious perfectionism thrives on the desire to be “special” in God’s sight. In fact, I think that’s putting it mildly. I’d have to say that religious perfectionism is positively obsessed with being “special.” To some extent, it’s an obsession whose seeds are planted early in the biblical narrative. In a very real sense, the stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs are all about the idea that the children of Abraham and Sarah are special. God promises them special blessings—they will be so numerous as to be “like the dust of the earth.” They will be given a “land flowing with milk and honey,” a land that belongs to other nations. With that kind of outlook in the very beginning of the Bible’s story, it’s no wonder that religious perfectionists throughout the ages have sought to lay claim for themselves on God’s special attention and blessing.
Religious perfectionists have used all kinds of strategies to guarantee that they get to be “special” people in God’s sight. One of those strategies is reflected in the parable from our gospel lesson for today: making it all about “us” against “them.” It’s a parable that is difficult to understand, and perhaps it may have been tampered with to make a point.[2] The community Matthew was writing for was probably struggling with the fact that, though they were Jewish, they had been thrown out of their synagogues. Now they were probably feeling displaced and struggling to justify themselves in the face of rejection.
The parable itself seems to talk mainly about the difficulty of separating good from evil in this world. That would be a point that is consistent with Jesus’ teaching—that it is difficult if not downright impossible to accurately judge another person’s motives and actions. [3] It would seem that, in the hands of Matthew’s church, that story turned into a means of supporting an “us” against “them” mentality: they are the “wheat” that will one day be harvested and gathered into God’s barns, while their enemies are the “weeds” that will one day be gathered up and burned. It’s a strange text. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that God gives the blessings of sun and rain to all alike (Mt. 5:44-45). Here, however, he tells a parable about separating the “children of the kingdom” from the “children of the evil one.” When you look at what Jesus says elsewhere, this parable about “us” against “them” stands out like a sore thumb. [4]
You may find it hard to believe, but religious perfectionists use this still today to support their “us” against “them” mentality. I heard this reflected in a recent BBC interview with Jerald O’Brien, a leader in the Aryan Nations organization in the Pacific Northwest.[5] He believes that he and all “Aryans” are “the children of God,” the true descendants of Israel, while others, especially the Jewish people, are “children of Satan.” Of course, that means anyone he doesn’t like, including President Obama, is Jewish, and therefore a “child of Satan.” Now, when we hear someone like that, we can all agree that it takes a lot of nerve to think you can confidently identify another person as a “child of Satan!” Or perhaps in this case at least a few screws loose.
But unfortunately we are not immune from the desire to be “special” when we hear this parable and its allegorical interpretation.[6] Who among us doesn’t assume that we are the wheat and “they,” whoever they may be, are the weeds. We all tend to approach a parable like this one and assume that we are the favorites, we are the chosen ones, we are the “children of the kingdom.” But the plain truth of Scripture is that in God’s sight all people are loved and valued. There is no such thing as “special” people in God’s realm, in the sense of having special privileges. [7] God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. God gives the blessings of sun and rain (Mt. 5:44-45), compassion and care (Ps. 145:9), to all people on earth alike. All people are God’s children—both by virtue of creation and redemption—and our faith and our way of life and our outlook on other people ought to be consistent with that basic truth.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/17/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 308, 310.
[3] William G. Doty, “Parable of the Weeds and Wheat” Interpretation 25 (April 1971):192. He says, ““The outcome of the parable … is the Father's business. The believer is free to go about his task … without intensive, extensive, frenetic justifying and judging and rooting-out of the ‘enemy’ or his deeds.” Cf. also Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 155.
[4] Barbara E. Reid, “Matthew’s Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables,” in Christian Reflection 2006, 31. In response to the violence of the parable, Reid asks, “What has happened to the boundless, unreciprocated divine love described in the Sermon on the Mount (5:44-48)?” unfortunately she resolves the tension by advocating the view that violence in this day and time is different from the end-time violence of judgment.
[5]Jonny Dymond, “US ‘hate groups’ bolstered by Obama’s election,” BBC News, 5 July 2011; accessed at .
[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 473, says this is due to our “innate pride, which makes us very indulgent to our own faults and inexorable to those of others.”
[7] From a biblical standpoint, if anyone is singled out in God’s sight, it’s for the same reason the children of Abraham and Sarah were singled out: to serve others; to be agents of God’s compassion, of God’s peace and freedom and justice.
Sowing and Not Reaping
Mt. 13:1-9[1]
There are some vocations that I think by definition can be incredibly discouraging. I would think that being a police officer can be one of them. Depending on where you work, you may spend most of your days working with the most troubled and violent members of the human family. I think teachers must also face this challenge. You go into teaching out of a sense of idealism about making a difference in the younger generation. And unless you’re very fortunate, you may wind up spending your days trying to teach kids who are much more interested in everything but learning. I would think it would be very easy to become cynical about the prospects of making a difference in the world.
I know for a fact that the same thing applies to ministers. Like teachers, many ministers go into the ministry out of a deep sense of idealism about making a difference in the world. They go through a seminary program that raises their awareness about biblical mandates regarding social justice, and about the joys of deeply spiritual worship, and about the latest strategies for reaching the neediest people in the community. And they get into the church and find out that people can be more interested in which hymnal they’re using, or in making and enforcing ever more specific rules on everybody else, or in keeping all the “squeaky wheels” in the congregation happy. And they work hard each week with the Scriptures trying to discern a fresh and inspiring message, only to wonder, week after week, if anybody is listening at all! Ministry is definitely a vocation that by definition can be incredibly discouraging.
But the reality is that the same thing can be said for Christian living. Most of us embrace the faith in some sense or another out of a feeling of “ought-ness” or a vision to make a difference in the way the world works. And you identify with a congregation and a denomination and find your way onto the session, only to find out that the leaders may spend more time fighting about décor and money than attempting any kind of mission to save the world. It can be incredibly discouraging. But you find your niche in mission and you keep going through the motions month after month and year after year, until you wake up one day so incredibly discouraged from a lack of results that you wonder if you ever really believed in God in the first place!
To some extent, the parable of the sower addresses this aspect of the Christian faith. When we seek to go out and make a difference in the world—whether in church service or in another vocation—we’re very much like the sower, planting seeds as we go. Now, planting seeds these days is quite different from planting seeds in Jesus’ day. These days we have it down to a science when and how and what kind of seeds to plant. In Jesus’ day, planting seeds was much more like life. You scatter seeds all over the place, hoping some of them will take root and grow and bear fruit. In spite of that difference, most farmers still know what Jesus was talking about—the quality of the soil makes all the difference in the quantity of the harvest. These days we can even get crops to grow on bad soil; In Jesus’ day, you had to just make do with what you got.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t really talking about agriculture. Among other things, he was trying to warn those who followed him out of a sense of personal commitment to the vision of a world of justice and peace and freedom that he inspired in them that not all the seeds they planted would bear fruit. There are lots of times when sowing does not lead to reaping. [2] Instead of rejoicing while “bringing in the sheaves,” we find ourselves just sowing and weeping and sowing some more. Despite some of the lofty sounding promises in the Bible, you just can’t always count on results, no matter how hard you try. Obedience doesn’t always mean rewards, even if the Psalmist seems to say it does. Faithfulness doesn’t guarantee results. Sometimes we find ourselves sowing and not reaping.
One of the notions that drive religious perfectionism is the idea that obedience automatically brings rewards. If we do what we’re supposed to, if we live like we’re supposed to, then our lives will be free from suffering and all our dreams will come true. Just the very action of identifying ourselves with faith and the gospel means that we’re on Jesus’ side and we will go from one success to another. But this pipe dream doesn’t live up to reality. In fact, it oftentimes leads to discouragement and even bitterness. As Henri Nouwen put it, the very expectation that our faithful sowing of seeds ought to lead to reaping a harvest leads to the resentment of bitterness when the results fail to appear.[3] That’s why he said that we must sow our seeds in the hope that there really is “light on the other side of darkness.”[4] That means that, even though we find ourselves sowing without reaping, we keep right on sowing those gospel seeds, seeds of mercy and kindness, seeds of love and justice, seeds of peace and freedom. We do it because one day some of those seeds are going to bear fruit.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/10/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible VIII:306. One of the difficulties faced by Matthew’s audience who were sowing gospel seeds was the fact that “the Messiah had been rejected by his own people.”
[3] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 76. He says that laboring on the basis of “expectations of concrete results, however conceived, is like building a house on sand instead of solid rock.”
[4] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 76: “Hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.” Cf. also Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World,” Review and Expositor 104 (Spring 2007): 340
Lay Down Your Burden
Mt. 11:28-30[1]
Children are wonderful and amazing. Especially as they go through the various stages of development. In our household, our granddaughter Avery is at that stage of development where she is discovering her autonomy. She is learning that she can make choices about what she wants to wear or what she wants to play. Of course, at this stage of the game, what that means is that she wants to choose what we do as well. Many of you have been there and done that. So the decision-making process gets complicated because she decides she wants to wear the pink dress, no the blue dress, no the green dress. And she wants to wear the lace-up sneakers, no the pink crocs, no the new Velcro shoes. You get the idea. What she really wants is to be in charge!
I thought of this when I was looking at our Gospel lesson for today. Last week we talked about how making the essence of holiness a matter of following rigid rules leads us to condemn others while letting ourselves off the hook. But the other side of the coin is what we do to ourselves when we take that path of religious perfectionism. On one side we see people who are more conservative than we are and we think that they are being too strict. And we may wonder whether they have some kind of mental illness. On the other side we see people who are more progressive and we think they are being too lax. And we may condemn them for having loose morals.
That’s what’s going on in our Gospel lesson with the strange comment Jesus makes about his contemporaries being like children saying, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (Matt. 11:17). John the Baptizer lived simply and practiced a fairly rigorous form of self-discipline. He withdrew from the normal interactions of life and lived like a recluse. And because he wouldn’t “dance to the tune” they were playing, they wrote him off as demon-possessed![2] But when Jesus came and lived life and laughed and welcomed all kinds of people—and, perhaps in the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries worst of all, ate with the “unclean” and “impure”—they also condemned him. Because he didn’t mourn with them when they “wailed,” they wrote him off as a glutton and a drunkard.
On the surface of things, it can seem that we’re incredibly ambiguous about spiritual matters, first condemning those who are too conservative, then condemning those who are too liberal. But in reality, we’re like children who can’t make up their minds what they want, because what they really want is just to dictate your actions. When we make religion a matter of following rigid rules, we essentially make ourselves the measure of all things spiritual. That’s an incredible burden to bear. It’s bad enough when we define religion by rigid rules; but when we make ourselves the measure of godliness, that’s a heavy burden indeed.
But in response, Jesus announced that he had come to set people free from their burdens. He came to free the people who, no matter how hard they tried, could never live up to the rigid requirements of the religious perfectionists. The rule-makers went around declaring everybody but themselves impure and unclean for some reason or another. But what gets hidden in all of this is that those who make themselves the arbiters of holiness carry an incredible burden themselves. Beneath the façade of “holier than thou” lurks the nagging doubt as to whether they have carried out the rules perfectly. We might see some of that burden in St. Paul’s anguish over his inability to keep the rules. I think Jesus came to free the perfectionists as well.
We live in a society where this kind of compulsive religion is no longer the norm for many of us. But there are other burdens that keep us from freedom that God intends for us all. Fear is a burden. We fear loss or pain or worse. But fear keeps us locked in a prison cell where our only companion what we fear the most. Anger is a burden that some of us carry. Most of us never learn that anger is normally a response to being hurt. But anger keeps us miserable, in turmoil, stuck in a place where we re-live that hurt—over and over again. Pride is our preferred form of perfectionism. We don’t just want to “keep up with the Joneses”; we have a driving need to be “better than” the Joneses. But that nagging insecurity that it’s never good enough is always around.
When children grow up in a stable environment, they have the chance to learn that they really don’t want to dictate what everybody else does. That need to control not only my life but everybody else’s becomes a burden that will crush anyone who tries to carry it. When we try to live that way, we rob ourselves of joy, and love, and life. The wisdom of the ages has taught us that the burdens that we carry only trap us in prisons of our own making. The only way to live—to truly live—is to let go the illusion of control—whatever it is you’re trying to control. Jesus said come to me, lay down your burdens, and I will give you rest. When we lay down the fear and anger and pride that imprison us, we can open our hearts to receive joy, and love, and life, and rest.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/3/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Douglas Hare, Matthew 123-24.