Too tired to care?

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

There is a lot written about ministerial burnout and depression. Simply Google the bolded phrase and see what you get. I am not going to overwhelm you with statistics here. I am however going to remind you, as I remind myself, that part of depression and burnout prevention, in all helping professions, is to have a clear sense of boundaries and to maintain them. Having and holding those clear lines of what is our “Journey Inward” time for self restoration and replenishment, so that we can be at our best for our “Journey Outward” time is an essential skill for ministry. We are trained and experienced boundary keepers and we can tell horror stories from our own and others lives of the times when we have allowed those fence lines to slip or be overrun. Depression, disillusionment, acidie, and at worst suicide are the bitter harvest that await, should we not defend ourselves.

As a trained and experienced minister I know the things I have just been talking about, and that is why I find the story of Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel so disturbing. It seems the Lord I follow, the Master and Mentor I serve, is a very unskilful boundary keeper!

Or is there perhaps a secret that Jesus knew that my trainers and mentors in the ministry didn’t pass on to me?

There can be no doubt that Jesus was tired and distraught. The news he had just heard was of the bizarre murder of John the Baptiser at the whim of Herod’s wife. Jesus’ withdrawal “to a deserted place” it seems, can only be understood as an self preservation strategy. My ministerial training approves. “When the going gets tough, the wise go on a retreat!” A boat trip to a desert location, lots of sleep and rest, some journalling and reading. Regather and refocus. This is all good, so far. Textbook stuff.

The insatiable crowds motivated by multiple needs and interests, however, follow Jesus, and Our Lord, if he had any sense, would have sent his disciples (there were no secretaries then) to tell the crowd that the Master was not available and could they please reschedule?

It is at this point in the narrative, in what happens next, that I think I may have found the secret of Jesus’ life and ministry. A secret I wasn’t taught in seminary.

Matthew says, “ he had compassion for them and cured their sick” and again when the disciples (read secretaries) act very professionally and want to send the crowd home so that they can close the office for the day, are told by Jesus, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Can you hear the protests… I imagine they would have sounded like an Thai “tuk tuk taxi, “But,but,but,but, but…!”

Am I forcing the narrative if I read that Jesus’ deep human need for self preservation was sublimated here by his deeper motivation and core value of always living from a place of compassion?

Let’s not get too caught up in the mechanics and mysteries of how five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men and their families, with twelve baskets (one for each tribe of Israel) left over. I want to suggest that the actual feeding is the second miracle.

The primary miracle, as I read it from the demands and exhaustion of pastoral ministry, is that a human being endangered by a head hunting king, in grief over John’s death, exhausted by an itinerant ministry; can find the compassion in the midst of all this to care about healing and feeding those needy crowds.

Could it be that compassion practised self-sacrificially can cure exhaustion? Is is just possible that compulsive boundary keeping and safe scheduling protects and preserves the false self, and keeps me from finding my true self in compassionate care?

My pastoral care manuals say “NO!”

My master says, “Follow me!”

Wow! Would you look at this? Ordinary 17a

Matthew 13:31-52

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

One of the joys of what Richard Rohr and others call “the second half of life”, is that one has enough life time behind you as material for review and reflection.  Naturally there isn’t total recall, (Thanks be to God!) and neither does one remember everything accurately.  I reserve the right to embellish and embroider my life story so as to maximise the enjoyment, if not of my hearers, then at least of myself as the narrator.  So coming to that life story which has more than a half century of content, I discover with amazement, how I have been surprised by God.  Now this isn’t a new thought, C. S. Lewis wrote “Surprised by Joy” and Gerard Hughes wrote, “God of Surprises” and many others have commented on the wonder of a God who simply appears in theophanic moments of delight, often totally unexpectedly.   What a Joy, C. S. Lewis, a joy indeed!

Ever since I first came across it I have been moved by the inscription that Carl Jung had on the doorway of his home.  It reads,  “Bidden or unbidden, God is present”. (You can see the Latin on the plaque in the right hand panel of my blog).  The maxim captures the same mystical, mischievous, dimension of God’s self revelation in the forms of everyday events.  Jesus was acutely attentive to that epiphanous reality in his life and it flowed into his teaching.

He taught that the Kingdom of God (literally of the heavens), the Divine Domain, is like… a minute micron of a mustard seed; a secreted treasure that is stumbled on whilst striding in a field; a precious pearl worth purchasing with your entire portfolio of provisions; a net straining with every kind of fish imaginable, so large a catch that you have to sift through it to get the good (and sustainable?) ones.  Each learner of life (Scribe) has a treasure out of which we can skilfully select and bring forth the best for the world.

What I love about this teaching on the theme of God’s surprise manifestations, is that in most cases the human response comes after the surprise. Because God surprises us we don’t have to contrive and control the conditions. In short we can’t make the miracle happen.

It is a miracle that the miniature mustard seed makes it through the prodigal sowing, and weed ridden wheat field of the past two weeks lectionary readings; but it does, and thrives. The surprise of the treasure, the pearl, the fish catch all precede , the commerce of converting ownership of one kind for the consolation of a Kingdom investment.  We respond to grace we don’t bring it into being.

How wonderful to realise as I look back on my life, that I really didn’t make much happen.  When I tried too hard I tended to butcher it.  No, I have been at my best, when I have simply allowed life to surprise me, and then responded to grace in gratitude and in giving. I am like the bulldog in the picture. Someone put be on this board and on this wave. God! what a ride!

Jesus condones Weed – Ordinary 16a

Matthew 13:24-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 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.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Why can’t  we leave judging to God?  What is it in human nature, that is somehow heightened in Christian human nature, that has to judge?  Jesus prohibited judging in his teaching. (Matthew 7:1-5)  He was always in some conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees for their persistent judging of people and their attempt to control the minutiae of others’ lives. Yet if you were to ask most people who have been alienated from the Church what they found most difficult about Christians they would say, “Church people are SO judgemental

I sometimes think that Christians are not merely trying to be “holier than thou”, they are trying to be “holier than Jesus!”.  Granted, Jesus spoke about being perfect even as our Parent in heaven is perfect, but as a good Wesleyan I know that he was referring to be perfect in Love as God is perfect in Love. (More on that here

Before holiness and perfection however, Jesus expected transformation in his hearers.  He knew that hearing the good news of the unconditional acceptance of a parenting, providing, profligately generous God, has a way of transforming our natures as we discover that religion isn’t about rules, it is about relationships.  This is a process.  That is why Jesus uses organic images to describe the process of  the Divine Domain (Kingdom of God) coming to fruition in the lives of people and their communities.  He speaks in this Gospel passage of the Divine Domain operating as growing wheat amongst weeds; as yeast leavening dough; as a small mustard seed transforming into a tree big enough to host a colony of birds.

This process isn’t flawless nor is it conducted in clinically sanitised environments.  Wheat grows in the presence of competing and threatening weeds, sourdough yeast is rotting old food material, and that little mustard seed could just as well have ended up as bird seed as a bird housing bush!

So Jesus condones weed.  He acknowledges that for the life of God to be real it needs to live and grow in a real world.  Nit picking weeding in a field of young wheat does more harm to the wheat than good.  Nit picking Christians are as damaging.

A Parable of the Prodigal Sower

Matthew 13:1-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

I marvel at how we turn everything into a competition.  Not a week goes by that I am not invited to compete in some way or another to win something or t’other.  It is little wonder then that when we come to parables of grace, like the one this Sunday, we compulsively look for the competitive spin in them.
The story as I understand it in a time before farm co-operatives where you can go and order your Monsanto, Du Pont or Sygenta seed, tells of a sower, who was no doubt also the farmer, going out to sow. The seed that he was sowing would have been carefully hand selected (there was no mechanization) from the best of the previous season’s seed.  It would have been carefully stored and protected from damp (not so difficult in a desert climate) and insect infestation (more difficult in a pre-irradiation and pesticide world).  After tilling the soil and preparing it for sowing the sower would have waited for the the optimum weather conditions and then on the right day gone out to sow.
I cannot remember the first time I heard this story, because it was one of those that children hear from their earliest times in Sunday school.  I do remember a picture of the sower from my childhood, it was on a memory verse stamp that was licked and stuck into the memory verse book.  I also remember that throughout my childhood, the parable was taught as being about the quality of the soil and not about the qualities of the sower!
You see the parable has some wonderful content for ever-competitive learners and educators to dig into, if you can bear the pun?  All through my childhood I was asked and asked myself, “What kind of soil are you? Are you bringing in the best harvest of all that God has invested in you?”  The Ol’ time balance sheet, so indicative of Evangelical religion was firmly drawn in my life.  I had to balance the books or be damned. Quite literally!
It was only in the last twenty years as I lived with this passage, that I have come to realise that as with so many other parables of Jesus, this story was designed to illustrate the Divine domain of God in a way that would evoke strong emotions in the hearers.
Just like the shocking story of the waiting father welcoming his profligate son, so the sower of the parable is a prodigal too!
To take preciously gleaned, cleaned, stored seed and sow it so recklessly that it falls on the path, in the rocky wastes and amongst thorns is prodigal at best and downright unskilful to boot.
This is a story that would have shocked those early agrarians for the sheer waste of good seed.  To then have the sower identified as God would have been shocking indeed.
In a shame-blame religious culture where the righteousness of people was measured by their position on the pyramids of power, prestige, and privilege; to even think that the word of God could come to those who seem to be so easily overcome by the Evil one, or by the cares of the world was a scandal.  Yet this is what the story suggests.
The seeds of grace fall indiscriminately into the lives of all God’s children.  The outcome of that gracious sowing will not be immediately known.  One never knows what may come of profligate grace.
To make of Christ following, an exercise in soil inspection, is to pave the heart, and  attempt to throttle the power of God.
Still the sower sows wildly day by day, some hear and some are hardened, some see and some are blinded, yet the sower wits not, and sows on and on in gracious abandon.
Thank God, the Prodigal Sower.