Sunday, March 17, 2019

Over and over again—a sermon on the parable of the generous vineyard owner

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Over and Over Again
Matthew 20.1-16 (NIV)
17 March 2019, Lent 2, NL1-28

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
‘But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

~~~~~~~~

A few weeks ago, the Clydeview Chaplaincy Team ran one of our workshops for P7 students on the theme of Equality, which is one of the core values of Clydeview. We invited the pupils to think about the differences between equality, equity, and justice, and encouraged them to strive for more than simple equality, using this example of three people trying to see over a fence. One of them is tall enough to see over, but the other two are not. Equality is when each of them is given the same thing: resulting in one person towering over the fence, one just seeing, and one still unable to see. Equity is when each person is given the support they need to participate—so the tall person doesn’t need the help, but the shorter person needs two crates to be able to see over. And justice is when the barrier to participation is removed—the fence is taken down, or a different type is built so all can see while the game inside is still safely contained.

During this workshop, we tell the students this story of Jesus: a householder had a vineyard, and he needed workers. He hired some early in the morning, for the usual daily wage and the usual daily schedule. Then throughout the day he went back out into the marketplace and hired more workers every few hours, promising to pay them “whatever is right.” And at the end of the day, he paid all of them, whether they worked for one hour or twelve hours, the same amount.

The usual reaction is “that’s not fair!” And that’s true, at least on the surface. The story isn’t fair.

But then we talk about some realities.

A denarius, which was the usual wage for a full day’s work in an unskilled job like that of a day labourer, would keep a family for between 3 and 6 days, depending on the size of the family and what other resources they had. Many people at the time also grew some of their own food in small plots in front of their houses, and they may have kept an animal that would provide them something to eat or make clothes with or to trade with neighbours. 

The workers who were standing in the marketplace were there because they didn’t have other work, and they needed to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families. And while they stood there all day, hoping to get hired, they were therefore not able to spend time on tending their garden or making housewares or other things that might provide for them. They needed work, and they needed it badly enough to wait in hope for even a partial day’s wage.

At the end of the day, those who worked for one hour must have been overjoyed at their good fortune. I can just see them celebrating that they would be going home with enough to put food on the table and new sandals on their children’s feet or new thatch on their roof, when just two hours before they had been despairing and wondering what to tell their spouse or child who looked to them for support.

But those who worked the full day, and then were paid exactly the amount they agreed to 12 hours before...they were not celebrating with their neighbours’ good fortune. They were not happy that the other people would also have enough to see them through another week. Instead, they grumbled against the vineyard owner and said “you have made them equal to us.”

You have made them equal to us. 

This is the moment when we ask the P7 students whether those who were hired first and those who were hired last had different expenses. Was food cheaper for those who only got a job for a few hours? Of course not. Indeed, the fact that they waited all day may even suggest they had fewer resources to draw on, since they didn’t go home and tend a vegetable plot or animals or a business.

And then we ask: what makes them unequal enough that the complaint would be “you have made them equal to us”? 

While we might go through a bunch of mental gymnastics about what people deserve or don’t deserve, and our world has plenty of people who believe some classes or races or religions are superior to others, ultimately, the answer is: they were already equal. There is no “us” and “them” hierarchy, only people, human beings, made in the image of God. 

The vineyard owner promised to pay each set of workers “whatever is right,” and that is what he has done: he has paid them all according to their value as people, rather than according to the value of their labour. He makes sure that everyone has what they need, so that they can all thrive as a community. He says to the complainers: I want to be generous to these last workers. I want everyone to have enough. I want to give them the same as I agreed to give you.

Remember that at the beginning of the parable, Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is like a landowner...” It is the desire of God’s kingdom that all should have what they need to live and to thrive. Perhaps that is the true meaning of abundant life—not that we individually experience abundance, but rather that the whole community experiences enough. Not just equality, not even just equity, but justice. 

I think this is one of Jesus’ hardest teachings for us in the Western world. It is so counter to the way our economic and social systems work. And we are prone to retreating into our us-and-them categories, insisting that they are not equal to us. But Jesus never said it would be easy. He offered us a narrow way that leads to life...and that way involves things that made people want to kill him, because they were radical and countercultural. When we are tuned in to his truth it will change the way we live in the world and go about our business, and that will change the world, until it starts to look more like the kingdom of God.

Normally I would end the sermon here with some sort of nice wrap-up line that I hope you’ll remember. But as I was thinking about this story this week, I had a realisation. I often try to read parables from different perspectives in the story, looking for different angles that might shed new light on familiar words. And I suddenly realised that I had never read this story as if Jesus was suggesting that we—the people called together as the Body of Christ, the Church where God’s kingdom is hopefully growing even now—might take the role of the landowner earlier in the story. I mean, I’ve obviously already suggested, though not said outright, that we ought to be finding ways to ensure everyone around us has enough to live with dignity, and using the resources at our disposal to do so—I think that is a large part of what it means to tune in to God’s economy of grace. But there is also another aspect I hadn’t really considered before:

Before we ever get to the part where he pays people justly, the landowner goes out of his vineyard and into the marketplace, where the people were...not once, not twice, but five times throughout the day. 

The story never says that he looked around the fields and decided there weren’t enough workers. It just says he went out to the marketplace and saw people needing work, and invited them into the vineyard.

Over and over, out he goes, and every time he brings someone else in along with him.

So I wonder...what if that is also what Jesus calls us to do? In addition to creating a system that is just and offers everyone abundant life, is he also calling us to go out of our comfort zones and into the places where people are, and invite them into the kingdom with us? Over and over again. No matter how many times we’ve been out before. No matter whether we think we need more people or not. No matter who they are or what they’ve been doing this whole time. Not so that they can do work for us—it’s unlikely he needed labourers at the 11th hour, after all. And not so that we can turn them into something they aren’t. Not so we can take advantage of them. But because it is a joy to be in community together, to work side by side for the kingdom of God. Because we want to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, to pray together and support each other. Because we want to share the good news we have here, we want companions on the journey of life, and we want to find ways to make our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world, a better place, where all have enough, where justice reigns, where people are valued for who they are not just what they can do. 

What would it be like, if we went out and invited people in, over and over again?

I think it would be like the kingdom of God.


May it be so. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Two Minds—a sermon on Jesus’ best known miracles

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Two Minds
Matthew 14.13-33 (NIV)
24 February 2019, NL1-25, communion

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed those who were ill.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’
Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’
‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.
‘Bring them here to me,’ he said. And he told the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’
‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’
‘Come,’ he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

~~~~~

These may be two of the best-known moments in Jesus’ life, aside from his birth and death. Once many years ago I was teaching a class of teenagers and when I asked them to make a list of things they knew about Jesus, it included only that he was born in a stable, died on a cross, and in between he walked on water. And then they wanted to know how that was possible and if it really happened.

I suspect that’s not so far off what Peter wanted to know as well. Every time I read this story and come to the end, where Jesus asks Peter “why did you doubt?” I think to myself—of course he doubted! He was literally standing on the surface of the sea, walking away from the safety of the boat! I have often talked about how Peter just wanted to be where Jesus was, that despite what felt like security in the boat he knew that the best place to be was at Jesus’ side. And when a rabbi called disciples, he was declaring that he believed they could do what he did—so for Jesus to call Peter out of the boat was just another sign that Jesus believed in Peter as much as Peter believed in Jesus. 

And yet...when he saw the waves, he was afraid and began to sink.

Now, the wind and waves were already wild before Peter stepped out of the boat. It isn’t as if he noticed them for the first time when he was already several steps away. Somehow, he managed to overcome his fear enough to get out of the boat in the first place....but he couldn’t maintain that courage long enough to stroll across the sea the way Jesus had done. 

Why did you doubt?

I learned this week that the word “doubt” literally means “of two minds.” The idea the word conveys here is of a conflict between Peter’s fearful mind set on human things, and a mind set on divine things. This isn’t the first or last time that this conflict has raged in Peter’s mind, or in our own. But I love the idea that Peter found himself sinking not because he didn’t believe in Jesus or in himself, but rather because the mind set on human things won out over the mind set on Christ.

How often we find our minds and hearts divided, one side firmly in this world and all its fear and scarcity and conflict and despair, and the other side in God’s reality. It is a constant balancing act, to live as if God’s kingdom is truly here, at hand, while also making our way through life surrounded by people and agendas and powers and desires and everything else that makes up the reality we more often see. Setting our minds on human things is a very....well, human thing to do. And I’m sure we’ve all known or heard about those people whose minds are so set on heaven that they’re no earthly good, as one of my friends puts it—people whose spiritual outlook doesn’t leave room for them to do things that help make this world look more like the kingdom of God: like caring about those in need, or protecting the environment. There is a balance to be struck...it’s only when Peter let the fearful side of his two minds win that he began to sink. 

But on the other hand, he got out of the boat in the first place, which is a sign that the side of his mind that trusted in God was in control at least some of the time! Perhaps because he’d seen the incredible feast that night, when honestly all of the disciples doubted—they had the fearful human mind at the fore as they insisted to Jesus that he should send all those people away, because having a hungry crowd in the wilderness was a bad idea. It’s as if they had forgotten what God could do with a large group of hungry people out at the margins, away from the prying eyes of the empire and its economy. And it also seems they have forgotten that it’s likely some in the crowd wouldn’t be able to afford to buy food, especially once merchants got wind of a huge crowd coming in—supply and demand would suggest prices would rise dramatically if 5,000 families suddenly arrived for dinner. Not to mention that the Roman Empire carefully controlled the food supply of its occupied territories, ensuring there was always a sense of scarcity. How many would go hungry in the scenario the disciples suggested?

When Jesus looked at them and said “you give them something to eat” I suspect he could see the fear in their eyes. But their second mind, the God-centred one, the one Jesus is constantly trying to get to be our first mind, was still just active enough to convince them to bring their meagre packed lunch to Jesus. And he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them...and there was enough. Enough to remind them, perhaps, of God feeding the people with manna in the wilderness. Enough for their eyes to be opened a little bit, so they could begin to recognise him. Or enough, maybe, to change the balance of their two minds, so that trust outweighed fear for a while. And there was a basketful of leftovers for every doubtful disciple, so they could physically take away with them the weight and the scent and the taste of God’s providing.

It’s easy to slip into believing that it’s better to go back to the empire economy, but Jesus is insistent that they stay at the margins—in the wilderness, on the sea—because out there,  it is easier to see that there is another way. When we’re in the midst of everything, buying and selling and wondering if there’s enough, thinking mainly of our own welfare and advancement, our minds are caught up in all the trappings of empire. It is the empire that insists each person must fend for themselves, that going it alone is the best way, that we have to wheel and deal to meet our own needs and leave others to do the same. Jesus is trying to train the minds of his disciples, and the crowds, and us, to allow those things to recede and have minds that are instead caught up in the trappings of God’s kingdom: where together, in community, all are fed, and all are welcomed, and all are nurtured, and all are valued. There’s no means testing for manna. 

That is why this table matters so much. It’s why the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is central to our spiritual lives as Christians. Because when we come to the table, no matter who we are or where we’ve been or what our status or ability, we are welcomed and fed. And the sharing of these loaves is a reminder to us that there is enough, that God provides beyond our imagining. This is when we taste and see that God is good...and also when our two minds can be reoriented, and our kingdom mind can be pulled to the fore and nourished and grown. This table is where we learn once again how to have the mind of Christ, set on divine things like love and justice and abundant life for all. When we feed that mind, that heart for God, then our lives will reflect God’s reality, and we can more consistently follow Jesus wherever he calls us—whether that’s out into the storm, or up onto the mountains, or anywhere in between.


May it be so. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Parabola—a sermon on the parables of Matthew 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Parabola
Matthew 13.1-9, 24-35, 44-46 (NIV)
17 February 2019, NL1-24

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.
‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”
‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.
‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”
‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’
He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
‘I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
~~~~~~~~~~

Many of Jesus’ most memorable teachings came in the form of parables—stories that are mostly about everyday life but offer some insight into what the kingdom of God is like, or how we can participate in God’s kingdom even now. Jesus was a master storyteller, as he connected the reality people knew with the one God is continually making known. Sometimes we fall into reading his parables as allegories, where each element of the story stands for something else. The difficulty with that is that you need a key to understand it, and the people who heard Jesus’ stories for the first time had no such key, yet they seemed to find meaning in these teachings, so it must be possible to read them in a variety of ways. The beauty of a parable is that it will reveal different meanings from different angles. The root of the word “parable” is the same as the root of “parabola”—for those of you whose geometry skills are a bit out of date, a parabola can be pictured as a U shaped cross section of a cone, parallel to one side. It is, essentially, a bounded space around a point, but the U shape never touches the point, it simply rotates around it. 

Similarly, a parable is like the space around a point. It doesn’t touch the point exactly, doesn’t always make an obvious connection, doesn’t make an explicit tag line of moral teaching at the end, but rather rotates around the point so that we can see it in a new way.

The parables in today’s reading are a great example of Jesus taking everyday life and helping people see the kingdom of God already in our midst. He uses normal things—seeds, weeds, gardens, food—and also imagination-catching things—like hidden treasure and great beauty—to offer a different vision of the way the world can be.

In the first of today’s parables, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who is terrible at his job and wastes seed by throwing it everywhere without preparing the ground first. We might consider it a reminder that actually the seed never goes to waste...after all, the birds that eat the seed off the path need food too, and even the flower that grows in the middle of a crack in the pavement might brighten someone’s day, and perhaps the plant growing and dying amongst the thorns will decompose and help nurture the soil. We’re meant to share the good news without deciding ahead of time what soil is good enough, and trust that the seed will serve its purpose, whatever that might be.

In the second parable, we have another master gardener who doesn’t trust his labourers...he sows good seed, but then weeds are sown alongside. The weed in this case is called Darnel, or False Wheat...it looks just like wheat until it’s nearly harvest time. Then the real wheat has ears that are full and heavy and begin to bend the stalk, while darnel stands up straight and tall. But all the time it’s been growing silently alongside the wheat, the roots have become entwined, and it’s impossible to pull one without the other. When the workers ask if they should pull out the weeds, he tells them an unequivocal no. They are not qualified to do that work. We, the workers in God’s good creation, are not the harvesters. We don’t get to make decisions about who stays and who goes in God’s kingdom. And when we try to weed out some, it’s likely we’ll damage others. Instead, the master gardener tells his workers to tend the whole field. Water it, fertilise it, take care of it. Regardless of our feelings about the people we share our field with, our job is only to nurture the life of the whole garden together. The harvester will manage the weeds in his own time.

We’ve heard about the mustard seed and how it provides extravagantly for all, even those who might be a bit of a pest around the garden. 

The two parables at the end of the reading feel different—they fit the extravagant theme, but they don’t seem quite as accessible to everyday people. The buried treasure is something we all may daydream about, but it’s hardly a worthy use of time to look for it. Yet when it is discovered, it’s worth rearranging our whole lives for. The pearl merchant is far outside the experience of 99% of Jesus’ listeners at the time, and probably still today. It’s a strange story in which a man finds something he didn’t realise he was looking for, and not only gives up all his possessions but also his identity—no longer is he a merchant, buying goods for the purpose of selling them to others. His life and his understanding of himself is changed because he came across something more valuable than he could have imagined. This is a perfect example of why parables are not allegories—because often we think the pearl must equate to the gospel, or to Jesus, or to salvation. But none of those are things you can possess, as the man possesses the pearl. Rather the story shows us someone who re-orients their life and identity, who has a change of heart and mind—which is what is asked of those of us who would walk the Kingdom Way.

Right in the middle of the reading today is my favourite of these parables. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. 

Let’s talk about yeast. Nowadays it’s a nice little powder that comes in a tin and we measure it out. But the yeast, or leavening, that Jesus would have known is what we today would call sourdough starter. It’s weird looking and smells a little....off. It has to be taken care of regularly, and it has to be used or else it gets out of hand. At its most basic, it’s something that is fermenting and decomposing right before our eyes.

And in the story, the woman hides this lump of starter in a massive quantity of flour. Some translations say “mixed” but the Greek is actually very clear, it says enkrypto...which means exactly what it sounds like. She hid it. In somewhere around 30 kilos of flour. And the yeast did what yeast does...expanded and worked its way through until all of the flour was leavened. Not one handful would be left untouched.

If we were to assume the woman did the usual things next—kneading, shaping, and baking—then she would have somewhere around 60-80 full size loaves of bread. Like our modern-sized loaves, meaning it was likely closer to 100 loaves then. In a time when most baking took place at a communal oven, where women gathered and took turns putting things in and out of the oven while watching children and talking amongst themselves, this is an unthinkable amount of food. Even if she were capable of preparing that much dough, she would have monopolised the oven for days, baking enough for her whole town to have bread.

Can you picture the neighbours, as loaf after loaf goes into the oven, and comes out to be passed around? Not a one of them would have to bake for days. Everyone would have their daily bread, without effort and without price, as Isaiah 55 says. All because of this woman who hid her fermenting sourdough starter in her entire stock of flour. 

Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed*...and here indeed is the kingdom revealed, in that bubbly decomposing blob that rises and infects and lightens and grows, until the entire village has enough to eat and share. Abundant bread of life for everyone, without thought to whether they deserved it or earned it or paid for it or were ready for it. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hid, just as Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, this parable reveals God’s kingdom way: a way that surprises us with enough for all.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

May it be so. Amen.





*With thanks to Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus for reminding me of this connection.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Foundations: a sermon on Matthew 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Foundations
Matthew 7.1-14, 24-29
10 February 2019, NL1-23

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
~~~~~~~~~

I don’t know how many of you are watching The Greatest Dancer on BBC1 right now, but as I was watching last night, the first words of today’s reading kept running through my mind. “Don’t judge,” Jesus says. But the host of the show says to vote for my favourite, which requires judging which dancers I think are better than others—which are more talented, more hard-working, more entertaining, more evocative, more interesting to watch. And the ones who don’t get the votes...well, they take their crushed dreams home. And often I’m left on the sofa thinking judgmental thoughts about my neighbours who have clearly voted for the wrong people, because honestly at least one of the groups that stayed last night ought to have gone, and one of the ones that didn’t get enough votes really was very good and should have gotten another week. The very concept of these kinds of shows forces us to make some judgments, and invites us to make plenty of others.

Judgment is a common theme in our lives—we have to make judgment calls, decide between options, figure out what is best. We talk about being a good judge of character. We are also prone to making snap judgments, relying on shallow information and our own biases, and those may or may not be helpful. We hear young people say “don’t judge me” both seriously and as a joke, sometimes about things as simple as choosing to have nothing but chips for lunch or as complicated as a career choice or a romantic partner. And I think some people have relied on Jesus saying “do not judge” as a way to avoid the hard work of calling for justice, speaking against racism and sexism and homophobia, or holding each other accountable when we do things that hurt others.

I’m going to let you all in on something that should not be a secret. The Greek word that most of our Bibles translate as “judge” in this passage is actually best translated as “condemn.” And the word “condemn” has a very specific meaning relating to people’s place in relation to God. To condemn someone is to place them out of God’s grace, beyond the reach of God’s love, to say that they don’t deserve salvation.

That’s a drastically different thing than simply deciding which dancer is your favourite. 

Hopefully we are uncomfortable with the idea of claiming that anyone is beyond the reach of God’s love...no matter who they are, or what they’ve done, or where they’ve been. 

Unfortunately that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history we have often been quick to condemn. We’ve used words like “barbarian” or “savage” or “uncivilised” or “thug” or “animal” and then from there it was a short step to stealing people, their land, and their resources. Colonialism is based in this type of condemnation, placing others beyond the reach of grace. That continues subconsciously in white supremacy or in isolationist and nationalist policies that assume some of us are more worthy of existing than others. And even more insidiously, it has crept in to our social and economic life as well, with phrases like “deserving poor,” implying that there are some who are undeserving of compassion or assistance.

I will admit that this kind of condemnation can be tempting in some cases when people’s actions are particularly horrific, or when the special-circle-of-hell tweet was funny and captured the mood of a moment, but the reality that Jesus offers us is one in which God’s love is well beyond our control, even when we might wish it was more limited. And when we insist on trying to place our limits on God, we will find those limits often end up leaving us out. Not because God will let us go, but because our small vision affects our ability to live in God’s kingdom—the measure you use will be the measure you get.

There is an old adage that whenever we draw a line that creates an us-and-them, we will always find Jesus on the other side. That is not to say we can’t draw lines of right and wrong behaviour, or personal or communal boundaries, but if those boundaries even begin to imply that there are more categories than simply “human, made in the image of God,” or that some people deserve God’s love and some don’t, or that anyone is past the point of God’s redemption, then we are on the wrong side. And that limits our own experience of grace—until the measure we give is so small that it has shrivelled our spirits and we are less and less able to receive the full measure of God’s kingdom.

I am sure that no colonial powers have thought of themselves as participating in the starving of their own souls as they conquered and stole and dehumanised and pillaged the earth for their own gain. I’m sure that is still true, that those who even now engage in those practices, whether politically or militarily or economically, don’t think of it that way. But Jesus says that is what happens: when we place restrictions on God, on love and grace, on the reality of the divine image in every face, then we find ourselves the ones restricted in the end.

It’s a hard teaching, and it will take us a lot of practice! But when we try, Jesus says we are like people who build our houses on a strong foundation of rock rather than on shifting sand. Notice that he doesn’t say it is his teachings themselves that are the rock, nor even really that he is the rock—though that is a common biblical image for God. Instead he says that the one who puts these things into practice is the one who builds on a sturdy foundation. The foundation is the actions of faithful living, striving to act in accordance with Jesus’ word, practicing all the things he says, not simply hearing them.

We all know that hearing and acting upon are two different things. All the coaching in the world won’t help those people competing on the Greatest Dancer if they don’t also practice the things the coaches say. That is even more true when it comes to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. We can listen and read and study and pray and worship, but if we aren’t also trying to do the things God calls us to do, that Jesus shows us how to do, that the Spirit equips us to do, then our house of discipleship is built on sand.

The thing about construction is that it’s often a fair-weather activity. And the house built in the dry season will always appear to be fine. It’s only when the rain comes, the wind blows, the stream rises—only when trouble makes its way over the horizon, or when we realise how much we have lost by our small measure—that we know whether it’s watertight or not. The one who builds on sand is the one who didn’t do the hard work of digging deeper into God’s word and into himself. Without knowing God’s word, how can we put it into action? And without knowing ourselves, how can we faithfully live as the people God wants us to be? 

Jesus invites us to the full measure of grace, by spending our time in studying his word, in connecting to God, in praying for the kingdom to be seen on earth...and then doing everything in our power to ensure that the circle is wide, that all know the good news of God’s love, that the systems of this world don’t continue to oppress or condemn. 

In short, building our house on rock is a way of life where our actions and our words and our prayers and our songs all line up, so light shines like a city on a hill, and all can see it. 

That’s also what the last line of today’s reading means, the one that wraps up the Sermon on the Mount. It says the crowds were amazed because Jesus taught with authority, not like the scribes...and the word “authority” means that his words and his actions matched up perfectly. He didn’t need to appeal to experts or to other interpretation, because his life demonstrated the truth of his teaching. That is what Jesus calls his disciples to learn as well—to not just talk about the Kingdom Way, but to live it, as he did. And remember, he would not call us if he did not believe we could do it. He knows it is possible to put his way of life into practice, to build our house on a solid foundation. All that remains is for us to believe him when he calls us, and to practice as best we can, trusting that the Spirit can take our faltering steps and turn them into something beautiful and strong, a refuge for all who seek shelter in the storm and strength for the journey.

May it be so. Amen.