Everything I Needed to Learn about Mark’s Gospel I Learned from Watching Smokey and the Bandit

 

1. The Good Guys are always in a hurry to get on to the next thing. Whether it is Texarkana, Capernaum, Atlanta, or Jerusalem.  The mission of the Kingdom of God is important.  We have got to keep moving.

2. Jesus turned water into wine. Bandit brought 400 cases of Coors beer. Each man knew what it took to keep the party going.

3. The bad guys never gave up trying to catch them on the finer points of the law.

4. Jesus had Peter. Bandit had Cletus. We all need someone like Jerry Reed as our right hand apostle.

5. Sometimes you’ve got to break the law to save the day. This may mean working on the Sabbath or speeding down a back road.

6. You will get there in the end.

7. Depending on other people is crucial. Without your Mary Magdalene, Carrie, Cletus, and others you will never make to the fairgrounds on time. All of the disciples help get you where you need to be and when you need to be there. No Bandit is a solo act.  Disciples work together.

8. The bad guys don’t play fair. Be prepared for anything.  The temptation story is brief in Mark’s gospel but it’s still there.  All that beer in the back of Cletus’ truck could have gone elsewhere.  Temptation and obstruction come in many forms.

9. You need a theme tune. Songs help everything. Let your song be succinct and tell exactly what you’re doing. There’s no doubt, we are heaven bound and down. Has anyone seen my hymnal?

10. Jesus walked everywhere and didn’t have a black Pontiac Trans-Am. If he had, Mark’s gospel would have moved even faster. There’s no time to waste. The kingdom of God is here and now. And Jesus, oh my Lord, he would have out run every Smokey!

*The Gospel Lectionary Texts for this season are from Mark’s gospel.

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The Most Difficult Thing In The World (Matthew 18:21-35)

What is the most difficult thing in the world ?  I can think of lots of difficult tasks.  It’s probably pretty difficult to move a comfortable rhinoceros.  Ranking somewhere near the top of “the world’s most difficult things to do” must be forgiveness.

From the dawn of time, forgiveness has been hard for humanity.  Technology hasn’t made forgiveness any easier.  The ability to live longer by conquering disease hasn’t made forgiveness easier to offer or simpler to receive.  Forgiveness is just as hard today as it was when the disciples posed their question to Jesus two thousand years ago. If we’re  hurt, we don’t like to forgive.  If we’ve been hurt, forgiveness is tough to accept.

When it comes to forgiveness, we’re in the same spot as the disciples.  We want to know; how does it work?  When do we know it’s actually taken hold?  When will we feel it?  Will we see the effects in the other person and in ourselves?

This is what Peter’s asking Jesus.  It is what we’re asking Jesus.  When Peter says to Jesus, “Tell me about forgiveness”, I want you to hear your own name.  I’m going to read the 21st verse again.  It says, “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Should I forgive as many as seven times?”  Where Peter’s name is, I’m going to pause and say my name.  I want you to say your name.  We’re all going to talk over each other.  That’s ok.  It will be a Pentecost moment.  Then I’ll finish reading the verse again.  Let’s do it together.  We need to realize:  Jesus is talking to us.

Forgiveness isn’t an ethical conundrum to be explained in flow charts and Venn diagrams.  Forgiveness isn’t a tactic; it is a response to God’s love.  Jesus doesn’t tell us about forgiveness.  Instead, he shows us forgiveness in action.  Forgiveness is best seen and lived, not observed and studied.  Through the art form of the parable, Jesus paints a picture of God at work through acts of forgiveness.  And this is an important point to remember.  As people of faith, we believe forgiveness isn’t an isolated action or event.  Forgiveness begins and ends in God.  Forgiveness (regardless of the side your on) isn’t something we do or receive.  Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to receive the gift of forgiveness and at the right time, we can pass it on.

Parables are not hierarchical lessons about right and wrong.  They are the nitty gritty of life.  You know the stuff you talk about when you get home from work or when you’re sitting around the house; that’s the meat of a Jesus story.

The kingdom of heaven is here, now, coming, and yet to be.  It’s Jesus’ ideal vision for the world.  This story will tell us how forgiveness works in Jesus’ world.

A powerful man wanted to settle up with his employees.  Everyone in the sound of Jesus’ voice had an image in their mind.  Whether it’s a fairytale image of a king in a far off castle (that’s what I picture) or probably King Herod or Caesar (what they pictured), they knew a rich guy who wanted to cash out.

One of the employees (let’s say a sharecropper situation) owed the landowner ten thousand bags of gold.  He was short on the cash.  He didn’t have it.  Jesus doesn’t tell us how much he was short but as you know, when the mortgage is due, they want all of it.  The king calls in all of the servant’s collateral.  This would have been common in that day and time.  His wife and children will be sold into slavery (remember Gladiator) as well as everything else he owned.  At the last minute, the man who owed 10,000 bags of gold begs with the powerful man.  I can pay you back.  I’ll do an installment plan, he says.  He asks only for patience.  This ruler, whoever he is, is moved.  He has compassion on the servant.  The man is released and the loan is forgiven.  So is the kingdom of heaven like a king running a business?  Is it like a man with loans?  Or is it like compassion granted when it is honestly undeserved?  I’m thinking Jesus wants us to latch on to the latter.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  You need to pay close attention.  The story evolves quickly.  Jesus is going to show us why forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness never stops with you.  Once you’ve gotten it, you have it forever.  You’re now responsible for sharing the gift you received.  Here’s the irony: you never take full ownership of the forgiveness.  It’s a gift to you, from God, and should shape how you view reality, forever.  Forgiveness is in your possession so it can be given away.

The guy whose massive debt was just forgiven runs into a colleague.  It’s another servant he knows from the area.  This other servant, the new guy, owes the just forgiven servant 100 gold coins.  The just forgiven servant (Mr. Big Debt Guy) loses his temper.  In an instant, he grabs the man who owes him 100 coins by the collar and demands to be paid what he’s owed.  That’s crazy right?

Guess what he does?  Mr. Big Shot, who was just freed from 10,000 bags of gold worth of debt and his wife and children into slavery, throws this guy into jail over 100 coins. He has no patience or compassion.  Big Shot has no time for a payment plan.  He wants his money and he wants it now!

You know what happens next.  The other servants saw this happen.  They knew this wasn’t right.  How could a man who was the recipient of such grace and forgiveness turn around and be so brutal to someone else for such a small amount of money?  Talk about double standards!

Here we see an important point.  Life may not be fair but Jesus is telling us something about the kingdom of God:  it’s based in a fundamental idea of fairness.  Jesus likes fairness.  God likes fairness and people treating each other kindly.  The kingdom of God is a place shaped by fairness; not gross injustice and inhumanity.  Jesus is painfully aware that many of the people listening to him have been thrown into jail and live in cycles of debt slavery to land owners and money lenders.  God’s vision is different from the reality they know.  This is one of the ideas that make Christianity unique.  God came to change the present, not the distant future.

So the colleagues and coworkers go back to the king.  They tell him the whole story.  You won’t believe what Mr. Big Shot did.  He believed it.

Big Shot was sent for and called before the King.  The King asked the question we are asking:  How can you not show mercy and forgiveness to your servant for a small amount of money when I showed you overwhelming forgiveness for such a great debt?  Mr. Big Shot couldn’t answer the question.  He was handed over to the guards and forced to pay his entire debt.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to be nicer to the people around you?  For Mr. Big Shot, forgiveness should have been the easiest thing in the world to do.  I wonder if that thought crossed his mind as they led him away.  I doubt it.

That’s where the story ends.  Jesus, in a moment of parabolic clarity, hammers the point home:  “My heavenly father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister in your heart.”

There’s no splitting hairs on this one.  Forgiveness is a priority with Jesus.  Jesus didn’t have opinions on many of the hot button religious (and culture war) subjects of our day.  You won’t find them in the Bible.  Jesus never talked about gay marriage, abortion, or illegal immigration.   He did, however, come down, pretty definitively on the side of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a gift from God that helps us understand what’s in the Bible and make sense of a confusing world.  It is a blessing we are obligated to use.  Forgiveness, this parable teaches us, is not a choice, an option, or a good idea.  It’s Jesus’ standard operating procedure.  In the kingdom of God, forgiveness is a fact of life.  Forgiveness is only difficult if we are too blind to see ourselves as recipients of Grace and too possessive of blessings that were never ours in the first place.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Paul Meant: Romans 13:8-10

“Don’t be in debt to anyone; except for the obligation to love another” – Debt, in cultural terms, is corrosive. It erodes the fabric of society, our quality of life, and the ability to recognize kingdom of God. We are spiritually indebted to love each other. Our greatest obligation is to love those we know and don’t know; those we see and don’t see.

“The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have and any other commandment are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself” – Love puts everything into perspective. The other commandments are responses to fear. Love removes the fear which drives the need for “don’ts”.

“Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the law” – The Christian ethic of love is self-correcting. Christian love always adjusts for the other, the neighbor, the friend, the outsider, and the voiceless; before anyone else. Christian love is selfless. If it is not, it is not Christian. Love is the “what next” of the Resurrection.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jacob Wrestles With Himself (Genesis 32:22-31)

THEY CALL THIS A CHILDREN’S BULLETIN! THIS IS CRAZY…

But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 

I’m tired of fighting God.

The past week was a struggle.   We’ve either been without power or on island wide generators.  The electrical line that powers most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was severed in a construction accident late last week.  Since that time, our islands were evacuated.  Local restaurants and hotels have lost thousands of dollars.  Other industries and businesses connected to the life on the islands (mechanics, grocery stores, and veterinarians) have all suffered as well.  Neighbors are fighting with neighbors about who really counts as a resident.  Life has been one big fight.  Whether a fight for power, air conditioning, a working cell phone, a plan to compensate workers, food, ice, or countless other items; we are wrestling with reality.

Along comes Jacob.  Jacob the Patriarch of Israel is making the final stages of his journey home.  Our struggle has been nothing compared to Jacob’s.  I feel for him.  After crossing the river with his wives and servants; he is ambushed.  In the text, that is how quickly this struggle begins.  There is no segue, setup, or transition.  This wrestling match comes out of the blue.  He helps his family across.  Jacob stays apart.  The fight begins.  There is no warning or preparation.  God jumps Jacob.

Are you ready for a moment of total honest?  I’m tired of fighting.  I’m worn out.  I certainly don’t want to fight with God.  I don’t know about you but God is the last person I want to wrestle with after the week I’ve had.  Why do we need to fight with God in the first place?   I’m tired of fighting.  Above all, I do not want to fight with the God.

We fight.  We jump people in the dark.  Humanity sinks to the lowest common denominator; just look at our Facebook pages.  God’s supposed to bigger than our petty foibles.  Surely God, in this of all weeks, you can understand our frustration and fatigue with fighting.  Today’s not the day for an all night wrestling match.

As I mentioned earlier, Jacob’s in no mood to struggle.  That’s why he fights back.  He’s hungry, tired, and ready to get home.  Jacob doesn’t have time to stop.  He needs a moment (this is why he steps away, goes apart) for his own piece of mind.  This anonymous wrestler invades his ability to seek a moment of isolation while still moving forward.

If anyone, be they man or God, tries to inhibit his progress; he will treat them as an obstacle.  Whoever this is that’s stopping him is delaying his eventual goal:  reconciling with Esau.

Jacob must have been one hell of a wrestler.  To hold his own (against God) was an amazing accomplishment.  Remember, Jacob didn’t know the identity of this assailant.  I wonder if God was taking it easy on Jacob or was in truly no holds barred.  Was God playing by some heavenly WWE rules?

It turns out God wasn’t playing by any rules.  This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story.  God cheats.  God can’t beat Jacob outright.  So God cheats.  I’ve never liked or been comfortable with this aspect of Jacob’s encounter.  After the ten days I’ve had, I’m even less thrilled with the notion of God whose sense of fair play seems to be well out of bounds.  I know that opens up a can of worms.  Does God have to play fair, especially by our standards of fairness?  But where do our ideas of fairness originate?

Traditionally, these notions of right and wrong are traced through ethics and philosophy back to theology and the Judeo-Christian tradition; that is to say, Almighty God.  What happens when God violates God’s own rules of fairness?

Here’s what I mean, “When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him.”  Again, the man (who was God) could not beat Jacob outright.  So he cheats by tearing a muscle in Jacob’s thigh.  What would we say if that happened in anyone of our middle or high school sporting events?  It wouldn’t be good.  At the least, the athlete would be disqualified.  We’re holding high school athletes to a higher standard of sportsmanship than God.  Something isn’t right here.  It’s not fair.  God cheats when God cannot win. God injures Jacob through his cheating.  God sets out the terms of morality and alters them in such a strange and capricious manner.  It seems like such a useless struggle and burden to lay on an already wounded soul.

Honestly, it’s hard to answer questions about some of these familiar Old Testament stories because there are no good answers.  Sadly, the picture of God painted in Jacob’s story is a well-known image to many Christians and non-believers alike.  Through our thoughtless actions, compromised theology, and aggressive evangelism techniques; the world has come to see God as a shadowy figure who ambushes, attacks, and harms people for no good reason.  God is the middle school bully who takes your lunch money and demands respect.  There is no love in Genesis 32:22-31.  The absence of love is palpable.  If God isn’t love, God isn’t God.

This is why Jacob isn’t wrestling with God.  We can’t read this story literally.  Despite the writer’s allusions to the attacker’s divine identity, Jacob isn’t wrestling God.  Who then, was Jacob wrestling with, especially if we’re taking this parable at face value?  This is a story about a man at war with his own reality.  It is, in some ways, what has to happen, before we go any further.  Jacob must fight himself.  He is his own worst enemy.

It seems so real.  This appears to be God.  It is not; it the darker version of himself.  The deeper truth of this scripture is about what happens when we meet the worst reflection of our own subconscious. We want this attacker to be God.  Why?  We need someone to blame for the death, delays, and poor decisions accumulating around us.  Who better to blame than an aggressive supernatural deity who exhibits the worst aspects of our own personality?   God has always made a convenient scapegoat for our own moral shortcomings.  If it goes wrong, it must be God’s fault-that’s the easy excuse of the part time agnostic.

Jacob is led by God to confront the realities caused by the rupture in his family after he cheated Esau of his birthright.  The deep truth of God’s involvement with Jacob (and his family) is reconciliation, renewal, and restoration.  Every part of this story has moved the reader (and Jacob) in this direction.  If what you’re reading isn’t part of the forward movement of those three aspects (reconciliation, renewal, and restoration) it’s not God driving the action.  Reality will seem real but it’s not.  We have to learn to tell the difference.  When the focus of the story changes; the meaning of the story does as well.  If Jacob isn’t fighting God, if he’s fighting himself; why would the writer of Genesis want to confuse us about God’s motivations when it comes to wrestling with Jacob? For that very reason:  Jacob’s motivations aren’t God’s, they’re Jacob’s.  Jacob doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Is he after revenge, restitution, forgiveness, or is this a suicide mission?  Does he believe and even hope Esau will kill him and take this lifelong burden from his soul?  If that’s what he believes and there’s plenty of evidence of Jacob’s death wish; that makes him a garden variety nihilist. He believes in nothing beyond himself; certainly not his wives, family, or anything else he’s worked so hard to achieve.  Jacob’s wound is self-inflicted.  It’s an attempt to do what he hopes Esau will finish.

God is there, in the background, giving Jacob the space to work it out.   God isn’t wrestling with Jacob.  God is in the empty space, the void in between the stones.  It’s in that space, an area shaped by God, where we gather this morning.  We are like Jacob, working out our own lives.  Esau’s various shapes, fashions, and forms are out there waiting for our arrival.  Our alienated lives precede us.  The Good News is this:  Grace is ahead of the brokenness.  God is in our story; driving it forward with reconciliation and love past what we deserve towards an embrace we can yet imagine.  We wrestle.  God guides.  Know the difference.

God Only Knows (Genesis 28:10-19 and Psalm 139)

One of the greatest love songs ever written begins with these words, “I may not always love you”.  The writer continues, “I’ll make you so sure about it.  God only knows what I’d be without you.”  How do you start, perhaps the greatest love song of the 20th century, with an acknowledgment of amorous doubt?  It would seem to be counter-intuitive to whole idea of a love song.  Brian Wilson was a musical genius in his ability to blend sounds, notes, and compose melodies.  He also understood a little something about poetry.

The first line of the song is not a statement of doubt.  The song’s title isn’t an expression of exasperation.  This love song, which you’ve heard hundreds of times, is more like a Psalm and prayer, than a Top 40 hit.  Why?  The first line and the title do two important things also shown by our scripture readings this morning:  one is an admission of vulnerability.  The other is an awareness of God’s presence.  Vulnerability and awareness: if we want to be fully aware of God’s presence it means becoming vulnerable.  For instance, I may not always love you (that makes me pretty vulnerable to admit this) but by acknowledging that I’m unable to love now or even into eternity without God, my inherently flawed promises are less important.  They are, however, backed by the full faith and credit of the creator of the universe.  My vulnerability, nor my promises, exists in isolation.  That’s what Wilson says.

It is much the same way for Jacob.  Most of know Jacob’s story the same we know the Beach Boys; we grew up listening to his song.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.”  You’ve been singing that one since before you heard “Help Me, Rhonda”.  However, when we look closely, there’s much more to this story than a ladder or stairway to heaven.

Jacob is a man on the run from time itself:  the past, present, and future.  At one point, Jacob thought very little of his family and friends.  He robbed his brother of the most precious gift he might ever receive, his birthright.  Lie begat lie.  Jacob was an outlaw among a displaced people. Physically, he belonged nowhere.  Spiritually, he was disconnected from the God of his father and grandfather. His past was dead, the present was dying, and the future would not exist.  The only way to survive was to keep moving toward whatever existed beyond the horizon.  Fight those in your path.  In stopping, he risked death.

Sleep was his greatest enemy. At night, when the memories of Isaac and Esau could not be banished and his legs were too weak to move, he hid in the darkness; among the rocks.  When Jacob stopped he became vulnerable.  When Jacob could no longer walk he became vulnerable.  Sleep and rest opened the door to Jacob’s greatest vulnerability.

The dream, the one with the famous ladder, isn’t hard to interpret.  Jacob is most vulnerable when is when he’s confronted with the idea of being related and connected to other people.  That’s Jacob’s issue.   In the dream, God speaks to him about descendants, springing forth from the dust.  God promises to protect Jacob and those descendants.  Jacob is the consummate loner.  This dream touches him at his most vulnerable point.  He wants to be connected.  Jacob desires community, fellowship, and family.  But he can’t!  He’s burned those bridges.  Yes he has.  They are well and truly burned.

However, here is the good news.  At our weakest and most vulnerable points, this is where we become aware of God’s presence.  God is already present and involved in our lives.  Until we acknowledge our vulnerability, our need to be completely open about who we are with the world and God; it’s hard to realize (or accept) God is messing around in your world.

Look at what Jacob says when he awakes.  For me, this is the most important part of this story.  It’s a verse I see repeated in my life time and time again.  “The Lord is (present tense) definitely in this place but I didn’t know it.”  He became aware of God’s presence and admitted, “I didn’t know it”.  Have you ever walked away from an encounter like this?  I’ve never walked away from brush or encounter with the divine where it wasn’t preceded by a feeling of intense vulnerability.  God should throw us off balance, make us a little nervous, cause some butterflies in our stomach, and leave you feeling a little stunned.  When you find yourself opening up in a conversation to a stranger then you ask yourself, “I don’t what happened?”  Maybe that was a God moment?  God is in the place, are you aware?

The Bible thinks and speaks clearly about the most powerful human emotions.  Vulnerability and awareness are essential for maintaining healthy communities as well as seeing God at work in the world around us.  It’s also evident in this morning’s Psalm.  Doesn’t it seem like the Psalmist is writing directly to us?

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Can there be a greater acknowledgement of our vulnerability?  “You have searched me and known me”.  God knows us in our totality.  Before God, nothing is hidden.  God is aware of every aspect of our lives.  Even before we speak, God knows our thoughts.  The more God knows about us, the more God is aware of our lives.  Awareness is care, awareness is love.  For the Psalmist, even for me, this is overwhelming.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

As Jacob realized, at our most vulnerable, when we are sleeping, God is present and aware.  Here’s where God’s idea of vulnerability becomes visionary. The Psalmist says that God becomes vulnerable for us.  Yes, vulnerability is central to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives.  The Psalmist takes this vision one step further.  God becomes vulnerable for us.  We worship a vulnerable God.  A God, who, if we make our bed in Sheol (hell) is already in hell waiting to bring us home.  This is a God who will wait for us in hell.

God becomes vulnerable for us.  What’s more vulnerable than a baby born in a stable? What’s more vulnerable than an innocent put to death?  What was it the Roman centurion said, after Jesus died, when confronted with Jesus’ vulnerability?  He became aware of the presence of God.

When we allow ourselves, like Jacob and Psalmist to open up and be vulnerable to God’s presence in our lives, we will discover something:  God is in the place and we didn’t even know it.

God embraced vulnerability for us.  To do the same seems the least we can do for God.

The World’s Worst Evangelism Model: The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

A man in a short skirt pays no attention to where he scatters seed.

There are many things which make me uncomfortable about this parable.  In order to explain why, I need you to think about how this parable is normally preached.  In fact, it is how I’ve preached this parable in the past.  Without a doubt, the church has heard this parable as THE model of mission work and evangelism for two thousand years.  This is what we do:  we scatter seed (the word of God) on different types of soil (people) and sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn’t.  Working against our evangelism in this agricultural metaphor are multiple forces:  the land, the environment, the weather, and evil incarnate.  Success, while as predictable as picking the right soil with the right weather, nutrients, and protection, appears to be as random as winning the lottery.

That bothers me.  If the ingredients to success are so obvious, why does the farmer waste his time sowing seeds in places that he knows will meet with failure?  Why does the farmer scatter seeds in places where he’s fully aware the rocks, thickets, and thorns will make it impossible for the seeds to bear any fruit?  Why set any seeds up for failure?  Why waste seeds?  Why not place everything in a location where good fruit is guaranteed? This frustrates me and I ask these questions for one reason:  in this parable, I believe we are the seeds.  You and I are the embodiment of the Good News represented by the seeds.  The message of Jesus Christ depends on our active engagement with the Gospel.  We are as much the seed, if not more so, than the soil.

Why is Jesus being cavalier with our opportunity to hear the good news?  Shouldn’t everyone get a chance to grow and respond to the gospel, no matter what kind of soil they’re living in?  What bothers me, really what scares me about this parable, is that it writes people off.  Some people, Jesus says, will never get it or only superficially understand the Good News.  This message of “trying, failing and discarding” doesn’t jive with “salvation” for everyone, including dirty rotten scoundrels like us.

Who gets to decide who’s flung from the seed bag into the good soil and why?  I think these are fair questions.  Here’s why.  The usual way this parable is preached goes something like this:  we talk about the soil shaping the personality of the seed.  If a seed lands among thorny plants does that make the seed thorny?  No, the seeds are all the same.  The seed doesn’t grow because if the environment it’s placed in.  But what preachers usually do is they turn the seeds that land in these “difficult” environments into the villains.  The seed seems to be culpability in its own failure.  Just because they’ve landed in the wrong neighborhood, we’re going to stereotype them.  But these seeds didn’t have a choice where the farmer flung them out, where they landed, or where they fell.  However, because they’ve landed in this predetermined spot we’ve decided is evil, the rest of their short lives, that’s going to turn out wrong too.  Because they fell in the wrong place with the flick of a farmer’s wrist, they bear no fruit.  Evil is allowed to invade their lives.  Famine, disease, drought, and suffering will strangle the life from the soil they call home.  The safety and security others take for granted, they will never know.   Why?  They fell in a different place.  They were scattered by the farmer.  Is this farmer Jesus?  As we consider what Jesus asks:  is this parable about the spreading of the Gospel or is it about the refugee crises in Darfur, Kenya, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration from central and South America to the United States, racism in our country, and on and on.

Is Jesus telling us some people aren’t worth saving because they happen to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time? I hope not.  This is what bothers me most about this parable.  Receiving the Good News and bearing fruit comes as nothing more than an accident of birth; like being born white, upper middle class, and wealthy in early 21st century America.  If you happen to land in the right place, you’ll get the benefits of being placed where God “wanted” you placed from the very beginning.  Your neighbors and friends, who began life with you in the same bag, weren’t so lucky.  They died of dehydration, were picked to death by crows, or didn’t have the same supportive earthly foundation.  You only had those things because you randomly landed in the right place.  But for the grace of God, that could have been you in the thorns or rocks.  You had nothing to do with your Good News; you didn’t make a choice to believe or not to believe in God.  The fruit you did bear just happened to you because all the external factors clicked.  It’s not an achievement if it was going to happen naturally.

Do you see the problem with the parable?  Salvation isn’t the luck of the draw.  If it’s not for everyone, at all times, in all types of soil, rocks, thorns, weather, wind, and rain, then it’s no good.  If salvation is some hereditary club, it’s useless.  Even after the crows have carried you and your Good News seed away, salvation is still has available and viable.  In fact, it’s not random at all.  If salvation is going to work, nothing can stop it from working.

This is how the Apostle Paul explains it:

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Did you catch that?  Nothing, no rocky soil, thorny bushes, birds, evil ones, or anything else can separate us from the love of God.  It’s like God wants everyone to be saved and has systematically removed all the obstacles to salvation.  Not even death will keep us from bearing fruit.  Paul’s universal vision of God’s love runs contrary to the myopic agricultural parables in Matthew’s gospel.  God’s love must be available for everyone or this project, called the Christian church, doesn’t work at all.  When you ration God’s love, we’re just another a self-help group cooking pot-lucks, raising money, and doing charitable work.  If you’re rationing God’s love, you need to ask yourself, how can I ration what’s not mine to give away in the first place?

Paul knew these things.  Matthew’s followers were still trying to figure it out.  Sadly, I think many of our churches haven’t got past Matthew’s metaphors.  God’s love doesn’t stop among our rocky, thorny, crow infested prejudices.  Instead, that’s the first place we need to go and invite God in and look for the divine to take up residence and start to do a new, new thing.