The Gospel According to Encanto: All of You

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12-13

On the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, the community has gathered. The house is decorated and music is playing, but it stops when it is time for the youngest Madrigal to make his way to the door that will reveal his unique magical gift. He stands at the foot of the stairs nervously, then gestures for his older cousin Mirabel to join him. Together they walk, slowly, up the stairs to the door with Antonio’s name on it, where his parents and siblings are waiting. He lets go of Mirabel’s arm and reaches, tentatively, toward the doorknob. At his touch, the doorknob begins to glow, then the whole door. Antonio opens the door into an exotic world of animals with whom he can now talk and interact. 

Some years ago, on the night of Mirabel’s own gift ceremony, it all went a little differently. Mirabel, too, walked up those stairs to a door with her name on it. Mirabel, too, reached out for the doorknob. But at her touch, a fog appeared and the whole door faded away. She is the only member of the family Madrigal not to receive a magical gift of her own. 

These two scenes, if you haven’t been following along for the past couple weeks, are from Disney’s recent hit movie Encanto. We’ve been looking theologically at different themes from this movie, including trauma, redemption, grace, and vulnerability. But we would be remiss to finish out the series without talking about probably the most obvious of theological themes: gifts. 

Except for Mirabel, every one of the Madrigals has a special gift. I’ve listed these before: Pepa can change the weather with her mood, Julieta can heal illness with a meal, Bruno can see the future. Luisa is strong, Isabela makes flowers bloom, Dolores can hear everything, Camilo can impersonate people, Antonio can talk to animals. 

In hearing this, we might be reminded of a well-known passage that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 

Paul goes on to talk about each uniquely gifted person as a part of the whole Body of Christ, which is the metaphor he likes to use for the church. Each member, he writes, is integral to the whole.

If you are someone who has spent much time in church, you have undoubtedly heard sermons on this passage before. Many of you have probably heard me preach on this passage before. In fact, in sorting through things in my office I came across this poster from 2015. I was surprised that I still had it, but glad that I did! It’s a picture of a human body with some different parts labeled – brain, voice, heart, stomach, hands, feet. I had had you all take a spiritual gifts survey that assigned you one or two of these body parts – ears for listening and discernment, heart for compassion, hands for service, stomach for processing information, etc., and then during that service I had you all come up and write your name by those body parts, so we could see just how we form the Body of Christ together. 

I honestly think this is an important sermon to hear once in a while. In fact, I try to preach it in summary every week as we offer our gifts to God – we are the church together. God has given us different gifts for different reasons. To some of us (not me) God has given the gift of having never met a stranger, and to those, perhaps, God has given the work of welcoming new people into our community. To some of us God has given great compassion for our homeless community, and to those, perhaps, God has given the work of supporting our bag meal ministry and other methods of being in relationship with those who live on the streets around us. To some of us God has given more technically oriented brains, and the Body of Christ needs you for working AV and keeping track of money. Being the church really does take all of us, with all our different gifts.

So that all may sound familiar, but my sense is that we are not always as familiar with the context around this passage. In this letter, Paul is writing to arguably the most drama-filled church of the first century. The Corinthians are fighting amongst themselves, they’re suing each other, the rich aren’t including the poor in communion. There’s some more spicy stuff too. Behind most of it is a kind of jockeying for status. This is an aspect of Greco-Roman culture that Jesus addresses a lot in his parables, and we see it in effect at Corinth as well. And, when it comes to spiritual gifts, it’s the same deal: everyone wants to prove that they have the best gifts.

As I’ve mentioned before, this blessing that the Madrigal family has is something they take seriously. Abuela has instilled in her children and grandchildren the belief that their gifts are to be used for the good of their community. Paul would approve of this. And yet we do also see this need for each member of the Madrigal family to prove themselves, to show what they can do and make their family proud. As Mirabel sings toward the end of the movie: so many stars, and everybody wants to shine.

To that, Paul says, If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? None of you is better than the others, he says – the Body of Christ needs all of you.

Maybe we see this dynamic in the church sometimes. I think a lot of times, though, our challenge is almost the opposite. Instead of thinking we have gifts make us better than everyone else, we think maybe we don’t have any gifts at all, or at least we aren’t sure of what they are, and therefore we think, well, someone else can do this job – someone else can be a greeter or work the AV or go out and invite others into church. Someone else, who is better at it than me. Guess what? Sometimes that means no one does.

Sometimes, I think, we are like Mirabel. We think everyone else got a gift and we didn’t.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says something I always found kind of strange. He’s just spent all this time talking about how no gift is better than another, and then he says, “But strive for the greater gifts.”

He goes from here into another famous passage. If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. Love, he says, is patient, love is kind…this is again a passage that we very often read out of its context, most often at weddings. It ends with another famous line: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. 

It took me a long time of reading these two passages to realize: these are the greater gifts. Not prophecy, not preaching, not speaking in tongues, but faith, hope, and love. And the beauty of this is, I think, that these are things that we are all called to cultivate in ourselves. Sure, we might know people who seem to have a naturally strong faith, or people who are just naturally compassionate and loving. But they are not qualities that are meant for only special people. Love isn’t a specific part of the Body of Christ, it’s the lifeblood of the whole body.

Mirabel Madrigal did not get a magical gift. And yet, as we talked about last week at Bible study, Mirabel has gifts of her own. We see this at the beginning of the movie, when she walks with Antonio up that staircase, her presence giving him courage. We see it in her determination as she goes to find the secret of what is threatening her family’s magic. And, we see it at the end of the movie, after Casita has collapsed, as Mirabel leads her family in rebuilding – both Casita and a new future. She is able to see each of her family members for who they are, not just the gifts that make them outwardly special. And she is able to help them see themselves that way, too. And when they do, they can all work together to rebuild.

Mother Theresa once said that if you can’t do big things, do small things with great love. That’s the lesson I take from Mirabel. She has no special gift, but the love and hope she offers her family is in the end the gift they need.

There is, absolutely, value in recognizing our God-given gifts. I hope you do. If it’s been a while (or never) and you want to take a spiritual gifts survey or otherwise talk about it, let me know. There is value in putting those gifts to use. I hope you are. The church isn’t the church without you. But maybe the more important takeaway is that even if you aren’t feeling terribly special, even if you don’t feel like you got an important gift worth offering, the church still needs you, maybe most of all.

My favorite scene in Encanto, the one part that always makes me tear up, comes during the last song, where the Madrigals are working together to rebuild Casita by hand. “What’s that sound?” Abuela suddenly asks, and Antonio says, “I think it’s everyone in town.” And indeed, they are coming, all of them, all of these perfectly normal people who have lived in the Madrigals’ shadow all these years.  “Lay down your load,” they sing. “We are only down the road. We have no gifts, but we are many, and we’ll do anything for you.”

And so all the ordinary townspeople of Encanto, who bring nothing but faith, hope, love, and some tools, rebuild Casita together. Because these things, as it turns out, are enough. Love, and a willingness to put that love into action through service.

My second favorite scene comes at the very end, when the new Casita is finished, and the family Madrigal gathers to survey their new home. There is just one thing missing: a doorknob. “We made this one for you,” Bruno tells Mirabel. And Mirabel, then, begins her slow walk to the door, as she did once years ago at her own ill-fated gift ceremony. This time, though, she doesn’t go to receive a magical gift. Instead she walks, knowing that who she is and what she has to give is enough, and knowing finally that her family sees it too.

She puts the doorknob in the hole in the door, and it begins to glow. 

Love, you see, can be magic enough.

The Gospel According to Encanto: We Don’t Talk About Bruno

Scripture: Psalm 139; Matthew 10:26-31

There are some things we just don’t really talk about. 

– Money. In lots of places money is a taboo subject. You’re bragging if you make too much and just making it awkward if you make too little.

– Politics. I mean, that’s not really true; this is DC, after all. Maybe better to say, politics in mixed company. This includes at church sometimes.

– Religious beliefs – anywhere outside of church. Right??

For the family Madrigal, of Disney’s hit movie Encanto, there’s another subject that few dare to broach: Bruno (of the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”)

Over the past few weeks we’ve met and gotten to know the amazing Madrigals, who live in their enchanted town in Colombia in their magical house Casita. As you will remember, each one of them is blessed with a unique magical gift. Pepa can change the weather with her mood, Julieta can heal illness with her cooking, Camilo can change shape to look like anyone he wants, Luisa can lift whole buildings like it’s nothing. Etc. As we’ve also learned, main character Mirabel is the one member of the Madrigal family who did not get a gift of her own. True to form though, we haven’t yet talked much about Bruno. 

Bruno is Mirabel’s uncle, the brother of Pepa and Julieta. All we know about him from the beginning of the movie is that his gift was the ability to see the future. One day, he disappeared completely.

It is on the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, when Casita begins to crack, that Mirabel starts realizing she needs to know more. Her mission to save her family and its magic leads her first to her cousin Dolores, then to her sister Luisa, who tells her the secret is sure to lie with Bruno.

A little bit of useful background is that on the night of each Madrigal’s gift ceremony, they are given their own magical room. Their room is a space that is uniquely them – Isabela’s, for example, is filled with beautiful flowers, and Antonio’s is a magical rainforest filled with exotic animals. Bruno’s room is filled with steep cliffs, long staircases, and lots of sand. Mirabel sneaks off to explore Bruno’s room and finds, to her surprise, one of his prophecies, an image in shattered, shining green glass. But what does it mean? 

She goes to find out more. And, in the song that made this movie famous, we find out more about Bruno, too. 

Unsurprisingly, the community had some negative reactions to Bruno’s prophecies. It seemed like he only ever had bad things to tell them – their fish would die, they would go bald, it would rain on their wedding day. It began to seem like Bruno was not just predicting the future, but making bad things happen. 

He wasn’t, of course. But try telling that to the people around him. 

And so, convinced that he was hurting his family instead of upholding the responsibility of using their family miracle for good, Bruno disappeared. And the family never – or at least rarely – spoke of him again. 

Why? Why won’t they talk about Bruno? Because it’s painful? Because he failed, in some way, to live up to the Madrigal name? Because he’s the one member of the family who doesn’t make them look good? 

I’ll be honest, it seems to me that it’s not just Bruno that the family doesn’t want to talk about. On the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, when Mirabel sees Casita beginning to crack, and she tells Abuela, Abuela won’t hear of it. “The magic is strong!” she announces to the whole gathered community. 

To talk about Bruno, you see, is to talk about the cracks that are already present in this magical family.

There are some things we don’t really talk about. Not just controversial topics like politics and religion, but more personal things: loneliness. Fear. Our own mental health. Death, as a future reality for us and for those we love. Sex, in any way that goes beyond certain rules and restrictions. The parts of our stories that carry grief, or shame, or that we fear are going to cause us to be judged.

We don’t talk about Bruno because we don’t want other people to know about the cracks in us.

As I thought about Bruno and the things we don’t talk about, Psalm 139 came to mind. This is the Psalm we read at the beginning of worship. O Lord, you have searched me and known me, it goes.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. It feels important this week especially to note that these words are poetry, and not a scientific or theological statement about when life and personhood begin. Rather, what we have here is the depiction of a God who knows us, intimately and deeply.

This is a Psalm that I think is usually thought to be comforting. God is always with us! In fact, yesterday Jon and the girls and I were driving to a friend’s birthday gathering in Harrisonburg, and we had the radio on a Christian station for part of the drive, and I noted how many praise songs seemed to quote this Psalm in some part. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you are acquainted with all my ways. Hallelujah.

I always thought of it that way too until one time I taught a Bible study on this Psalm and started reading more about it. If we listen to the language of the whole Psalm, it’s not so clear that it’s supposed to be comforting. You hem me in, behind and before, the Psalmist writes. You lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? This, perhaps, is not a God who’s always at our side like a loyal best friend. Instead, this is a God who pursues us, even into the underworld if necessary.[1]

What if the Psalmist is running because they don’t want to be fully known? Maybe they don’t want God to know every thought they have before they even speak it. Who would??? Aren’t there some things just better left unsaid?

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,” Matthew tells us, “and nothing secret that will not become known.” Mark and Luke both quote Jesus as saying this too, but only Matthew has the gall to tell us not to fear. I’m sorry, I don’t consider myself to be a person with any huge skeletons in my closet, but even so, there are things that I would rather stay in the dark.

It turns out maybe it’s not so comfortable to be fully known, cracks and all.

Brene Brown is a researcher and author whose work focuses a lot on vulnerability, and the power inherent in vulnerability. She says she came to this topic through the study of shame. She talked to a number of people and divided them into categories based on their own sense of self-worth and belonging. And she says that of the people who had that strong sense of worthiness and belonging, one of the things they had in common was vulnerability.

“They fully embraced vulnerability,” she says. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating…. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first … the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”[2]

Talking about hard things, the things we’d rather ignore and deny about ourselves, whether it is mortality or grief or sin or shame, requires vulnerability. That’s why we don’t like to do it. That’s why we don’t talk about Bruno. And yet according to Brene Brown, these people who embraced vulnerability were also living life more fully and joyfully.

I do know there are sometimes good reasons not to talk about these parts of ourselves. I know, for example, that it might be physically unsafe for a teenager struggling with their sexuality or gender identity to come out to parents who might not accept them. I know that being forthcoming about a struggle with mental illness can have negative implications for a person’s professional life in some cases. I recognize this. I’m not saying we need to be open books all the time; not everything needs to be a social media blast; obviously discernment is called for.

What I am saying is that allowing ourselves to be known, letting others into our broken lives, being able to tell our full stories, is part of the abundant life that God wants and intends for us.

Even the Psalmist, the one running away from the God who knew too much of them, eventually stops to offer God praise: I praise you, they write, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Perhaps, for just an instant, they are able to see themselves as God sees them: fearfully and wonderfully made, cracks and all. Perhaps, for an instant, it is not so bad to be fully known at all. The Psalm ends with a prayer: Search me God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. What the Psalmist was running from at the beginning is now what they pray for, because they know being known is the beginning of life as God intends. And, in fact, we’ll see this next week, as we see what happens when the townspeople of Encanto finally do see the family Madrigal for all of who they are.

“Do not fear,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “for nothing is covered that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known.” He’s talking, here, it turns out, not about our own sin and shame but about God’s Kingdom, and he’s talking to those who will go out and proclaim it, even when they meet resistance. Don’t be afraid: God’s truth will come out, and that truth is that you are loved, and you are offered forgiveness, and shame is wiped away.

There are always going to be things that are hard to talk about. There are always going to be parts of ourselves that it’s hard to share. But maybe, in God’s eyes and even sometimes in the eyes of others, what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful, and leads us to life that’s fuller and more joyful. Maybe it’s time to talk about Bruno.

[1] I no longer have the resource that first gave me this idea nor remember what it was. In the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Psalm 139 (Vol. IV, p. 1236), J. Clinton McCann notes the “possible ambivalence” of the text in this regard, though he comes down on the side of God’s omnipresence as good news for the Psalmist.


The Gospel According to Encanto: Surface Pressure

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

The author Kate Bowler writes that her great-grandmother, Marjorie Bebbington, was a “hell of a woman.” She was “tough and kind,” made her family’s meals and sewed their clothes, and ran an entire block’s worth of apartments. She was also a painter. Sort of. Marjorie Bebbington wasn’t a very good painter. But Marjorie Bebbington wasn’t used to not being able to succeed what she set her mind to, so one day she walked down to the local thrift store and bought a painting and painted over the artist’s signature at the bottom and signed it herself.

Kate Bowler writes, “I had that one hung in my house until I got old enough to think…wait a minute…she really made some remarkable progress.”

“My great-grandmother,” she continues, “had bought into a story of intense perfectionism: that she had to be everything, or she was nothing at all.”[1]

Last week in worship we met another family with reason to believe that they can do anything and be everything: the amazing Madrigals, of Disney’s latest hit movie Encanto. We learned the story of Abuela, who as a young woman fled her home, lost her husband, and received a miracle: the blessing of a magic house in a magic town surrounded by high mountains, and a magic family in which each member in every generation has their own magical gift. Everyone, that is, except her granddaughter Mirabel.

One of the members of the family Madrigal who we met last week is Mirabel’s sister Luisa. Luisa has the power of superhuman strength (and looks the part.) We first encounter Luisa in the movie as the family is running around making last minute preparations for Antonio’s gift ceremony, which is about to take place that night. Luisa is carrying huge barrels three at a time. Someone needs to move a piano? She’ll get it. Guests need valet parking for their donkeys as they arrive? She’ll pick those donkeys up one in each arm like it’s nothing and move them where they need to go. Luisa is the strong one – inside and out.

As I mentioned last week, the family’s magical gifts aren’t just for fun. At the beginning of Antonio’s gift ceremony, Abuela stands up and makes a speech. “Fifty years ago,” she says, “in our darkest moment, this candle blessed us with a miracle. And the greatest honor of our family has been to use our blessings to serve this beloved community.” This is not the first time that idea has come up. Already in the movie’s opening song, Abuela sings: We swear to always help those around us, and earn the miracle that somehow found us.

All seems to go according to plan that night as Antonio, the youngest of the Madrigals, receives his gift. But that night, as the town celebrates, Casita begins to crack, and Mirabel begins her mission to save the magic and save her family.

She begins the next morning with her cousin Dolores, who can hear everything. Dolores tells Mirabel she heard Luisa’s eye twitching all night. When Mirabel goes to Luisa, Luisa tries to play it off. But eventually, she gives in and tells Mirabel the truth: the night before, while Casita was cracking, Luisa felt weak.

Again, this isn’t just a matter of disappointment. This is a full-blown existential crisis. These are the amazing Madrigals, and Luisa is the strong one. She has internalized Abuela’s expectations. She has a responsibility to her family and community. Who is she if she isn’t strong anymore? What is she worth if she can no longer do what everyone expects from her?

It seems to me that even though “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became the song this movie is known for, it’s Luisa’s song, “Surface Pressure,” that everyone I know seems to identify with. Under the surface, she sings, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service. Who am I if I can’t carry it all, if I falter?

No cracks, no breaks, no mistakes, no pressure.

Have you ever felt like Luisa?

Have you ever felt like you have to be what other people expect you to be? The perfect parent? The perfect child? The perfect employee? The perfect Christian? The person who somehow has it all together?

Do you ever feel like you might just crack under the pressure?

So many of us, it seems, are going through life just trying to hold it together. For some of us, the world shut down two years ago and all of a sudden we were required to keep doing our full-time jobs with skills we’d never used before while also homeschooling our kids. Others of us have felt the pressure of being part of the sandwich generation, caring for kids and parents with health issues at the same time. Just this week I’ve read multiple news articles of young student athletes dying by suicide, unable to live up to the pressure put on them. Meanwhile our capitalist ideology tells us that if we’re not stressed we’re not important; we are only as good as the value we add to our company; we are worth what we can produce. We make ourselves miserable thinking that if only we can find the right diet, the right organizational system, the secret to it all, that somehow we will be OK.

Do you feel that way? Do you ever feel like you. might. crack.?

If so then I have a word for you, from the letter to the Ephesians. The author of Ephesians, who calls themself Paul but may or may not actually be Paul, is writing to churches in Asia Minor, telling these Gentile communities just how they fit into this story and community of salvation that has preceded them. In chapter 2 the author writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

For those of you, who like me, spend a lot of time worrying about how you’re measuring up and earning your right to belong, this is what God wants you to know: all the points you rack up and the awards you win and the hours you bill and the number of books you read with your kid before kindergarten aren’t going to save you.

Our worth, our belovedness, our place in God’s story: those things are offered to us for free. And faith, I think, is not just being able to believe, intellectually, that Jesus died for me, but about accepting this alternate reality that God offers us in Jesus, where no one has anything to prove.

Because I know this verse has been at the center of the whole faith vs. works debate in Christian discourse – the question of, if we’re saved by grace through faith, then, basically, can we just be jerks and not worry about it – let me point out the next verse as well: For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

We go on to read in the rest of Ephesians that the way we live our lives in Christian community matters, and that this is a matter of some intentionality, of working together and listening to the Holy Spirit – but the thing is, it’s easier to love when you know you are loved than when you are required to love your neighbor x amount in order to make it into heaven. It’s easier to live as God intended when we’re not doing it for a grade.

I’ve been seeing a spiritual director over the past few months, and at our last meeting I was talking to her about this voice in my head – maybe you know it – that seems to always be asking if I’ve done enough, if I’ve made the faithful choice, if the thing that I want is really what God wants for me, and she listened to all of this, and then she said, “You know, I have to tell you, I don’t think that voice is of God.” And I said, “How do I know?” And she said, “Has that voice ever brought you peace?”

And I didn’t have anything to say to that, because yes, grace is supposed to challenge us, and yes, grace is supposed to be costly, but in the end, yes, it is also supposed to bring us peace – and not be one more thing that makes us think we might crack.

I think sometimes of the lyrics to a song I really liked in college that I sometimes come back to when I feel like I have nothing left: If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through. And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.[2]  So what if you fall, Luisa? Go ahead and fall, and let grace catch you.

As it turns out, Luisa isn’t the only member of the Madrigals who feels the pressure of trying to live up to her family name and her magical gift. Her sister, Isabela, who has the gift of making flowers bloom at will, feels the pressure to be perfect and beautiful and ladylike, to marry according to her family’s expectations instead of what she actually wants. Isa, it turns out, would sometimes rather grow cactuses than roses. Mirabel, who has no magical gift, feels the pressure of proving her worth in a family where everyone is special but her. Bruno, the uncle no one talks about, even ran away when it seemed like his gift was doing more harm to the family than good.

All of them thought they had to earn a gift that had already been given.

And maybe we do too.

At the end of Encanto, when the Madrigals gather back at their beloved Casita, which has completed crumbled to the ground, and Bruno comes back, Abuela reveals the lesson it took her this long to figure out: The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got, the miracle is you. Not some gift, just you.

Then, the Madrigals begin to rebuild together. With the magic extinguished, Luisa is perhaps only slightly stronger than the average person. But it doesn’t matter. She is part of the family. She is loved, and she belongs.

As Christians we might put Abuela’s words a little differently: the miracle is that we are made in the image of God, that we are loved, that Jesus lived, died and rose again to offer us life both abundant and eternal.

We couldn’t earn it if we tried. All we have to do is – by faith – live it.

[1] Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, Good Enough: 40-ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection, p. 166-167.

[2] “If I Stand,” written by Rich Mullins and also sung (in the version I first heard) by Jars of Clay

The Gospel According to Encanto: The Family Madrigal

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:4-17

Meet the amazing Madrigals.

There is Pepa, who controls the weather with her mood, and her sister, Julieta, who can heal any illness or injury with the food she cooks. The next generation is no less gifted: Dolores can hear sounds a mile away; Camilo can shape-shift and disguise himself as anyone he wants. Luisa has superhuman strength, and the perfect beauty Isabela can make flowers bloom out of nowhere. Abuela is the matriarch of the family. A long time ago, Abuela received a miracle: a magical town in their native Colombia – an encanto – surrounded by high mountains to keep her and her family safe; a magic house, Casita, whose stairs and windows and drawers and floors respond to the family’s every need; and a candle, eternally burning, representing the magic of the family itself, each member with their own magical gift.

This, as you may have picked up on, is the cast of characters Disney’s latest hit movie, Encanto – at least, most of it. If you haven’t seen the movie, that’s OK. I’ll be sending you some video links from the movie in your e-note over the next couple weeks so you can have some idea of what I’m talking about up here, and if you don’t get the e-note I encourage you to search for some clips on YouTube. (That or subscribe to Disney+ for a month – it’ll be worth it!)

Abuela, as we learn, takes this miracle seriously. Her children and grandchildren’s gifts are not simply valued for the sake of fun or power. It is her family’s solemn responsibility to use their gifts for the common good of their town, to prove that they are worthy of this blessing. And so if she sometimes puts her family under a lot of pressure, that’s why.

There are still  a few members of the family I haven’t mentioned. There is Pepa and Julieta’s brother, Bruno – we don’t talk about Bruno. There is Antonio, the youngest Madrigal, who is about to have his coming-of-age ceremony where he will receive his own magical gift. There is Mirabel, the hero of our story. Mirabel is the only person in the Family Madrigal who did not receive a gift, and she has made it her mission since then to prove her worth and usefulness as part of the family.

The story opens on the day of Antonio’s gift ceremony. The mood is celebratory, but there is an underlying unspoken tension. Everyone remembers what happened last time, at Mirabel’s ceremony, when no gift was given. For Antonio, however, everything goes as planned: he opens his magical door and all of a sudden is able to communicate with animals. Abuela breathes a visible sigh of relief. The magic is still at work.

That night, though, while the rest of the family celebrates, Mirabel sees Casita begin to crack. By the time she calls for Abuela, everything is normal again. Mirabel, however, sets out to discover what’s really going on with her family, just what it all has to do with her tío Bruno, and how she can save the family’s magic.

The Madrigals remind me, in some ways, of a story the Bible tells about another family who received a miraculous blessing. The story starts with a shepherd boy named David, the youngest of eight brothers, who in his own anointing ceremony is improbably chosen over all of them to be king of Israel. David doesn’t become king right away. Instead he finds his way into the court of King Saul, proves himself as a valiant warrior, and rises in the ranks – until Saul starts to see his right-hand man as threat to his power. David does eventually become king, but only after years of civil war and life on the run.

Years later, after David is comfortably settled on the throne of a reunited and increasingly centralized Israel, he decides that it isn’t right for him to be living in a nice cedar palace while God’s residence among the people is still the mobile tent that came with them from the Sinai wilderness. So, David announces his intention to build God a house – a temple. That night, though, God speaks to the prophet Nathan. God, it turns out, doesn’t need David to build God a house: instead, God will build David a house – not a physical structure, but a dynasty. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me,” God tells David through Nathan; “your throne shall be established forever.” Suddenly, this is a family that will have the honor and responsibility of carrying a blessing through the generations.

For a while, Israel enjoys a time of peace and prosperity, an era that future generations will look back on as a golden age. It is not so long, though, before we begin to realize that even this miraculous house has some cracks in it.

It all starts when David sees Bathsheba, decides she is going to be his, and arranges to have her soldier husband “accidentally” die in battle. The man after God’s own heart, as David is sometimes called (see 1 Samuel 13:14) has apparently lost himself to his own power. The cracks continues with David’s half-hearted response to a crime committed by one of his own children against another, which leads the nation back down the road to civil war. David does prevail, at the cost of his son Absalom’s life, and when David finally dies of old age his son Solomon takes the throne.

There is no denying the prosperity and splendor of Israel under King Solomon, but this, too, comes with a cost. Solomon’s Israel is a place where the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, heavily taxed and forced into work gangs to build the Temple that David never did. When Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam comes to power, Rehoboam vows to rule with twice the iron fist that Solomon did. The people protest, and the kingdom splits in two.

Descendants of the house of David will continue to sit on the throne in Jerusalem for another (almost) 350 years. Most of them will not be people after God’s own heart. The cracks in this miraculous house get wider and wider, until the house can no longer stand. It falls to the Babylonian army in 587 BCE. Most of the stories we now read in the Old Testament are written and/or compiled as people look back and say, a descendant of David was supposed to be on the throne forever. How could this have happened?

How could this have happened?

Back in Colombia, despite all of Mirabel’s efforts, Casita eventually crumbles and falls as well. In the aftermath of its collapse, we learn more about Abuela’s story. How she and her husband fled their home with infant triplets in their arms as militias rode through, setting fire to everything in sight. How her young husband turned back to defend his family from guerillas approaching on horseback. How that act of love cost him his life, but was also the source of the magic that made the amazing Madrigals. The story of the family Madrigal is a miraculous one, but it is also a story born out of trauma.[1]

And if we go back to David’s story, perhaps it is not so hard to see it as the story of a miracle born out of and wrapped in trauma: this man after God’s own heart, divinely chosen, who nevertheless found the road to kingship paved with violence and fear, and who will see that violence play out in his own family’s story for generations to come.

Psychologists tell us about this idea of intergenerational trauma, how the experience of trauma often doesn’t just end with the person who experienced it directly, but how it comes to bear on the relationships of parents with their children, and those children with their own children. The phenomenon was first studied in survivors of the Holocaust and their children, who showed symptoms of trauma despite having never lived through it themselves. Intergenerational trauma and its cousin, historical trauma, which can affect whole groups of people, can be important in understanding things like cycles of poverty and addiction and the wide-reaching effects of racial injustice in our country.[2]

I don’t know how many of us would identify this kind of intergenerational or historical trauma as part of our own family stories. I know there are those of us in this community who have experienced trauma directly. And all of us, every one of us, has undoubtedly experienced brokenness, every one of us has stories we hoped would go a different way than they did, with all the grief and despair and guilt which come with that.

My point is not to say that we are doomed, destined to pass on the worst parts of our own histories and experiences to those who come after us. Obviously, these are incredibly complex issues, and I do not claim any expertise as a psychologist, but what I do believe as a matter of faith is that there is hope for all of the brokenness in our stories to be redeemed.

I don’t mean to say that redemption will happen magically, or overnight. It often happens as we come to know our own stories, as we confront our individual and collective pasts (as individuals, as families, as a nation), as we use all the resources at our disposal to break harmful patterns and cycles and challenge systems that perpetuate violence and trauma, which we may even find that we are part of. God, I believe, is in this holy work, giving us hope for something new. In this season of Easter, we may be especially attuned to the ways God is bringing new life for us and for the world around us – and how we might be called to participate in that.

For Abuela Madrigal, redemption comes through Mirabel, and her willingness to confront the cracks in the house the family she loves. It comes through Mirabel understanding the trauma that is a part of Abuela’s story and where her obsession over her family’s magical perfection comes from. It comes through breaking the pattern of pressure and fear and starting again on a new foundation.

For David, redemption comes God’s people reflect theologically on their history, as God brings them back from exile and allows them to start anew, even if things look a little different than they once did. And, as we tell the story as Christians, it comes as once again a descendant of David is hailed as King. Jesus will claim the good and miraculous parts in his family’s story and make that the new foundation for humanity’s relationship with God.

At the end of Encanto, the family Madrigal comes together to rebuild. Abuela and Mirabel sing a new song. “Look at this home, we need a new foundation…it isn’t perfect/neither are we/that’s true.”  No longer the amazing Madrigals, the perfectly normal Madrigals must learn to live into a new story – and it’s one that is filled with hope.

Once, David offered to build God a house. God told David God would build him a house instead. But sometimes, God says to us: why don’t you build a house with me? It might not look like the place you’ve always lived, but it will be hopeful, and beautiful, this new foundation that God promises. 

[1] For more about the setting and background of Encanto, this is a good article:


From the Manger to the Cross: The Kingdom Victorious

When I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned the story of a baby who was born surrounded by farm animals and laid in a manger. I learned how this baby grew up and called disciples to follow him, how he healed people and forgave them, and how he made bread multiply so everyone could be fed. I learned about the stories he told: stories of lost sheep and sons who came home and foreigners who stopped to help people on the road.

And, when I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned the story of a man, the Son of God, who died on a cross and rose again.

Of course, I knew that all of these stories were about the same person. But looking back, I’m not sure we always told them like that was the case. It was almost like there was one set of stories about the man who lived, and this other story about the man who died. The stories about the man who lived were nice. But the stories about the man who died were the point, because if God sent God’s only Son to earth to die in payment for our sins, then the stories of the people he had helped and healed and loved along the way were at best bonus content.

I’m sure I’m overstating the way my childhood teachers and preachers – to whom I owe the foundations of my faith – separated those two parts of the story. But I do think we as Christians have the tendency to do that, to talk about Jesus’ life and the things that made him nice and charming on the one hand, and about his death that saved us on the other.

If you’ve been worshiping with us since the beginning of the year, you know that we’ve been going through the Gospel of Luke, all the way from the manger to the cross. And my hope has been for us to hear all those stories we usually hear here and there – the baby in the manger, the calling of disciples, the exorcisms – as part of one bigger story of Jesus’ life and ministry. Last week as we read the passion story in all its parts I wanted us to hear how that man who healed and told stories and made bread multiply is the same man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, turned over tables in the Temple, ate the Passover meal with his disciples, was arrested in Gethsemane, and crucified by Roman soldiers.

And this morning, that story continues, as a group of Jesus’ female disciples head to the tomb bearing burial spices. Their only hope, now that all other hope is gone, is to the complete the preparation of his body which they hadn’t had a chance to do on the Sabbath. You know the rest of the story: the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the angels gleaming like lightning proclaiming that the living are not be found in this place of death.

It is a story that proclaims new life and God’s love and surprising good news and hope for those for whom all other hope has died. But it is also a story that can’t be told on its own.

You see, we often tell the story of Easter as if it begins at the cross. But the story of Easter doesn’t begin on Good Friday, or even when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of Hosanna. The story of Easter begins when Mary finds out she is pregnant with Jesus and sings of the hungry being filled and the rich going away hungry, of tyrants being toppled and the poor and lowly lifted up. The story of Easter begins, again, when Jesus stands up in front of that crowd in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very outset of his ministry and reads from the scroll of Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The story of Easter continues as Jesus preaches and tells stories about this upside-down kingdom of God, where the poor are blessed, prisoners are freed, sinners are forgiven, and outcasts are welcomed to the table. It continues as he heals people in body and spirit and makes that good news of which he speaks tangible for them, inviting them to live in this Kingdom reality for themselves.

When Jesus begins to attract the displeasure of the local religious elite, we get our first hints of how this story will end. We begin to realize that this good news he preaches, where the first are last and the last first, is not good news to everyone. And if we have ever found ourselves in a position of luck or privilege in this life, maybe we can understand why this good news seemed more like a threat to some.

Eventually, we know where it all leads: Temple leaders who are afraid of the way Jesus criticizes and threatens their institution and the power they get by being part of it; Roman leaders afraid of this revolution he seems to be starting. It all comes to a head on Good Friday, but it was headed down this path from the beginning, since the moment Jesus’ mother and then Jesus himself stood up and proclaimed good news to the poor and the breaking of chains.

All those stories of the man who lived – all the healings and the bread and lost sheep and Good Samaritans – they aren’t just nice Sunday School stories about how much God loves us. They’re the reason Jesus died. The crucifixion is the reaction of the rich and powerful to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in this world. And when we look at it that way, it’s a predictable ending, maybe even an inevitable one, because isn’t that how it always seems to happen, and in fact who are we to say that if we were the rich and the powerful, we wouldn’t have done the same thing?

But that morning when the women show up at the tomb, the whole story changes.

Jesus healed people, and the powers that be said leave them in chains. Jesus ate with sinners, and the powers that be said don’t you know what they’ve done. Jesus talked about the love of God, and the powers that be said who do you think you are. Jesus preached good news to the poor, and the powers that be said no.

On Good Friday, it looked like “no” was the end of the story.

But on Sunday, a group of women arrived at the tomb and found it empty, because the Kingdom of God that had been breaking into this world the whole time cannot be defeated by the powers of sin and death. It is bigger than them; it is stronger than them; the upside-down Kingdom of God is and will be victorious.

I know it sounds naïve, maybe kind of Pollyanna-ish, to stand up here and say that good wins out over bad in the end. Life isn’t a superhero movie. Instead here we are, listening to news of war in Ukraine and in other places around the world that don’t as often make the news; staring down the barrel at another wave of Covid; feeling powerless in the face of the climate change we already see happening around us; feeling powerless in the face of how our country seems to be divided enough that it’s ready to collapse. I can’t promise that any of it will all turn out OK. But the story of Jesus isn’t a superhero movie. It’s realistic enough to tell us that sometimes, the story ends in death – real, actual death. But it also tells us that on Sunday, women went to the tomb with burial spices and it was empty.

There’s a line in one of Paul’s letters that has always challenged me – “If Christ has not been raised,” he writes to the Corinthians, “then your faith is in vain…..If only for this life we have hope in Christ, then we are most to be pitied” (15:17,19). It challenges me because I don’t want us to forget those stories of Christ’s life, of healing and welcome and mercy and love, of all the good news that was preached before Jesus died. But at the same time Paul reminds me that if the story were to end there, who cares? I might as well get what I can for myself now, because we know where mercy and love lead. If Christ has not been raised, if the powers of death win, then why live for anything or anyone other than myself?

But because the tomb is empty, the invitation stands – to live life as part of the Kingdom of God.

I ask myself sometimes – am I living differently because I believe that Christ was raised? Am I living differently because I believe that the good news of the Kingdom of God, and all it might ask of me, is the only way to life in the end? Am I living in a way that wouldn’t make sense if the resurrection turned out not to be true?

If nothing else, I believe this: that the way Jesus lived, and showed us how to live – his way of mercy, and welcome, and justice, and love, and sacrifice – is the way that leads to life, even when it leads through death.

There’s more to the story, you know. As Luke tells it, the story goes on – as Jesus ascends back into heaven and the disciples go off on their own, empowered by the fire of the Holy Spirit to heal and forgive and make bread multiply and welcome outsiders in. They do it because they know – they have seen the empty tomb. They have seen Jesus alive. Their faith is not in vain. And so they go forth to proclaim good news to the poor, just like he did – the man who lived, and died, and lived again.

From the Manger to the Cross: Jesus and the Outsiders

Scripture: Luke 17:11-19

“A border,” writes author Marcus Sedgwick, “is a question. In fact, a border poses a whole series of implied questions, such as ‘can you cross me?’, ‘will you cross me?’, ‘what am I doing here in the first place?’ and maybe most importantly: ‘Will you be someone else on the other side?’”[1]

“From Tijuana to post-war Berlin,” writes Hebrew Bible scholar Jacob Wright, “border towns are, not surprisingly, popular settings in modern film and literature. They are also often the subject of biblical writings.”[2] Borders, he writes, are where allegiances shift and identities are worked out. In other words, borders are good places for stories to take place.

So it’s noteworthy that this passage begins with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria. Immediately we know that there is potential, here, for identities to clash and new things to happen.

To understand why this particular border matters, we have to dig back to our Old Testament history. I know some of us this may be digging further back than others here. You may remember that Israel once existed as one united kingdom, in the days of David and Solomon. After Solomon died, it split in two: a Northern Kingdom, still called Israel, with its capital at Samaria, and a Southern Kingdom, consisting mostly of the territory of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem. In 722 BCE, Samaria falls to the Assyrian army. Assyria has a policy of resettlement: they take people out of Samaria and exile them to the far reaches of the empire. And then they bring people from those far reaches in, and the result is a kind of ethnic and religious mixing. The very northern part, the region of Galilee, is actually not that interesting, kind of a backwater, and so Jewish leaders are able to repopulate that area sometime between the Old Testament and the New Testament. So you end up with Jews in the north and south, and people known as Samaritans sandwiched in the middle.

Samaritans, it turns out, are not actually that different from Jews. But they’re a little bit different, in their religious belief and practice – for example, their worship is not centered in Jerusalem – and that’s honestly kind of worse. It’s always easiest to hate the people who are closest to us. You could deal with the Samaritans if they were off worshiping Marduk or something totally different, but instead they are YHWH worshipers who are worshiping YHWH wrong, and that is not to be stood for. Thus Jews and Samaritans don’t like each other, which might sound familiar from Sunday School. This border that Jesus travels along is not simply a geopolitical marker: it is a division between one kind of people and another.

As Jesus travels along this border region, he is approached by 10 people with skin diseases. You may know them as ten lepers, but we’re not necessarily specifically talking about leprosy here. They come as close as they can while keeping a respectful distance. That’s what they are required to do, according to biblical law: “The person who has the … disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean.” That’s Leviticus 13:45-56.

So that’s how we get this group of people, living together on the literal border of society, practicing the original version of social distancing. Perhaps some are Jews and some are Samaritans. When you’re that marginalized, all those other social divisions tend to fade away.

This isn’t an ancient practice, by the way. A few years ago Jon and I went to Hawaii and visited the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. It was established in 1866, when the first patients were transported there to remove their contagion from wider society. When we visited, people still lived there. They no longer had to – leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is curable today. But they had grown up there, and chose to stay. In Bible study last week Barb Schweitzer said that there was a similar colony near where she lived in Okinawa, Japan. This practice of quarantining sick people on the margins of society was in effect within the lifetimes of people who are still alive today. And we can understand that, right? As far as we’ve come in the past two years, we are not so far removed from the fear of deadly contagion ourselves.

The ten call out “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!” Jesus says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” This instruction also echoes Leviticus: if a person was healed of their skin disease, they had to be examined by a priest who would pronounce them clean and fit to participate in communal life. It’s interesting because when Jesus tells them to head to the priests, they are not yet healed – Luke tells us it happened on the way. There is faith involved in this turning around, faith on behalf of all ten, and I’m not sure they really get credit for that.

One of them, though, sees that his skin has been healed, and he doesn’t keep going. Instead he turns around, runs to Jesus, falls on his face, praises God, and thanks Jesus for healing him. Just one of them. And, Luke tells us, this one was a Samaritan. And we are meant to be scandalized, because of course those backward, boorish Samaritans who don’t even worship YHWH right don’t do things like that.

This is a story that is traditionally read for Thanksgiving – it’s about the importance of remembering to say thank you. And I’ve preached that sermon. But in the end I’m not sure the focus is as much on the practice of thanksgiving as it is on the Samaritan who surprisingly turns out to be the good example.

This story is part of a pattern in the Gospel of Luke: an emphasis on the inclusion of outsiders and marginalized people as part of God’s story.

We see this from the beginning, because Luke includes women in his story in a way that the other Gospels don’t. As Matthew tells the Christmas story, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. But in Luke’s telling, the angel appears to Mary herself, and Mary then goes to visit Elizabeth, and they get actual lines. It’s in Luke that we learn that woman also traveled along with Jesus and his male disciples and supported them. In Luke, Jesus tells stories starring women as the heroes, like the woman who lost a silver coin, or the widow and the unjust judge.

From the beginning, Luke is clear that foreigners have a place in God’s Kingdom. The other Gospels hint at it here and there – but Luke is upfront. Remember that scene I keep coming back to, Jesus’ ministry debut in the synagogue in Nazareth, where he stands in front of the crowd and reads from the Isaiah scroll: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. When the neighbors express their pride in their hometown boy, Jesus tells them not so fast. Do you think you have a sole claim to the good news? he asks. What about the story of the widow in Sidon? There was a famine in the whole land yet God sent the prophet Elijah to her for a feeding miracle. And what about the story of Naaman the Syrian general with leprosy? Weren’t there enough lepers in Israel for God to heal? But God healed Naaman instead.

You might remember that for that, the townspeople tried to run him off a cliff.

And then, of course, there is that other story – also told only in Luke – of a surprisingly Good Samaritan.

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a great banquet: a party where none of the people originally invited decide to show up, and so the host sends his servant out to the highways and byways to collect whoever will come. He calls the poor, the physically disabled, the outcasts who were barred from community life. For Luke, the good news is always good news first and foremost for outsiders.

And that is good news for any of us who have ever been the outsider.

For every kid who ever sat alone in the cafeteria or got bullied at the bus stop; for anyone who has been treated like a second-class citizen because of their race or gender; for anyone whose mental illness has ever meant that they stood on the fringes of a life they saw everyone else having; for everyone who has ever been unwelcome in church because of their sexuality; for everyone who comes from the wrong place, has a background they can’t quite overcome, for anyone who just never seemed to fit in – this good news is for you. You have a place in the Kingdom of God. You are part of this story. In fact, maybe you even get it in a way the insiders don’t. Blessed are the outsiders.

The complicated part, of course, is that a good many of us are both. We know what it is to be forgotten or excluded, but we know the privilege of insiders as well. And so, even as we are comforted by this good news as Luke tells it, we are challenged, too: challenged to see others not through the eyes of the world that creates insiders and outsiders, but through the eyes of God for whom there are no outsiders. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that there is no longer Jew nor Greek; we might say in today’s reading that there is no longer Jew nor Samaritan. Any can receive and recognize the grace of God. Any can take it for granted.

One of my favorite images is a comic by David Hayward, who goes by the Naked Pastor. It’s an image of cartoon people holding pencils as big as their bodies, drawing lines that separate each person from another. And Jesus is there with his own pencil, eraser side down, rubbing out the lines they draw.[3]

The love of God that Jesus embodies on earth is a boundary-breaking love. It takes the walls and fences we put up and breaks them down one brick at a time; one surprising thank you at a time; one Good Samaritan at a time. Jesus doesn’t respect our borders. He has no use for them.

“Get up and go,” Jesus says to this foreigner; “your faith has made you well.”

But what about the other nine? Didn’t they do what Jesus said, and turn around before they were even healed, to go and show themselves to the priests? Has their faith not already made them well?

Well, maybe. It’s a different word that Luke uses here. All ten have been cleansed of the disease which made them unclean. Only one is made well. Only one recognizes that their life has been transformed by the grace of God. Blessed is the one who recognizes it.

Blessed are the outsiders, for they know – for we know – what it is to be invited in.


[2] Jacob L. Wright, David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, p. 57


From the Manger to the Cross: The Mission Trip

Scripture: Luke 10:1-12

I went on my first mission trip with my church youth group when I was 14. We went to Bainbridge, NY, the home of Elmer’s Glue. The glue had nothing to do with the mission, it’s just a fun fact. I spent that week with a crew of kids from other youth groups, painting an old house an inexplicable sea-foam green. In the evenings we would come back to the high school where we were staying, have talent shows, sing praise songs, and play card games until it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags which were all sprawled out across hard classroom floors. This will sound familiar to any of you who have participated in one of our Applachia Service Project missions. Jon was on that trip, too. Somewhere I think I still have a picture of him asleep in the van on the ride home, because that’s the kind of thing you do on mission trips, take pictures of your friends sleeping in the van. 

I still have the paperback New Testament they gave us that week, with these words on the back: “This is a week that you’ll remember for a lifetime. Helping people in need, serving without asking for anything in return, living as Christ asked you to live.” 

It was, perhaps, a little self-congratulatory for a bunch of teenagers spending a week of their summer at camp, but the thought stuck. I’ve been on a lot of mission trips since then. I’ve helped put new siding on a trailer in Kentucky (next to some of you.) I’ve counted pills in a pharmacy in Honduras and led worship services at dying churches in England. I don’t know that I have always made a big difference in the world, though I hope sometimes I’ve made a small one. I do know that on every trip, I have always learned something: about myself, my gifts, my vulnerabilities, my vocation; about openness to other people. I have, in fact, remembered that first mission trip, as well as many to follow.

In today’s reading from Luke, seventy followers of Jesus – or 72, depending on which ancient manuscript you happen to have – head out on their first unforgettable mission trip. You might be wondering where these seventy people came from, because we’re used to hearing about 12 disciples. But the Gospels tell us that Jesus had more than 12 people he called disciples – the Twelve were just his inner circle. 

The Twelve, in fact, have already been on their first mission trip. Back in Luke 9, before the events on the Mount of Transfiguration, we read that Jesus gathered the Twelve, “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.” He instructed them to take nothing for the journey: no change of clothes, no snacks for the road, no money. The Boy Scouts, this was not. Instead of being prepared, they would take a risk on the hospitality offered to them. Luke 9:6 says, “They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”

That commissioning of the Twelve is recounted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all of our synoptic gospels – but Luke is the only one that tells us about the sending of the seventy. That leads us to ask: what is the importance of this story to Luke? Let’s remember that we are now on the other side (metaphorically) of the Mount of Transfiguration, on the way to Jerusalem and all that lies in wait there. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” says Jesus. He knows, now, that time is running out. The work that remains to be done will require more than just twelve. 

We can hear the added sense of urgency in Jesus’ voice. Like he said to the Twelve, he tells the seventy to take nothing with them – no purse, no bag, no sandals. (Not even sandals??) He also tells them to greet no one on the road. Don’t get sidetracked; keep your eyes and heart focused on the mission before you. We might think of the enslaved Israelites on their way out of Egypt, no time to let the bread rise. Jesus tells them he is sending them out like lambs in the midst of wolves. This is, it turns out, no youth group mission trip with its praise songs and talent shows.

Their mission, if they choose to accept it, is to go before Jesus, two by two, into all the towns and villages he plans to enter on his way to Jerusalem. He gives them instructions: Find people that will take you in. Stay with them. Eat what’s put in front of you. Don’t be too good to accept their hospitality, and don’t go looking for a better deal, either. Cure the sick, and tell them the Kingdom of God has come near. If you are met with rejection, shake the dust off your feet and move on. There are other people in other places. There is more work to be done. 

From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry has consisted of two main things, and that is teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and healing them. He begins with that passage from the scroll of Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. With that, Jesus preaches the beginning of a new era, where the rich are poor and the poor are rich and the last are first and the first last. His healing miracles are an outgrowth of his preaching – tangible evidence of good news to the poor and oppressed. So when Jesus sends this large group of followers out ahead of him to cure the sick and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, what Jesus is essentially telling them is to do the work that he has already begun. 

As I have come to learn in my own experience, mission trips are in part about the work you do – some more than others. Appalachia Service Project’s mission, for example, is to make sure people in poor rural areas have access to housing that safe, warm, and dry. This is a tangible need that we help to meet, because Jesus cares about people’s tangible needs being met. 

But mission trips are also, and in some cases largely, about the people who go on them. They are a chance for followers of Jesus to learn new skills, whether that’s using power tools or leading morning devotions, and to gain confidence in them. They are a chance to encounter God in new ways, in a new place, among new people, who sometimes lead very different lives from the ones the missioners have temporarily left behind. They are a chance to go out and work and serve and learn each day and then come back at the end of the day and actually get to process all of that through the perspective of faith: how did I see God at work today? Who did I see God working through? These experiences, as my paperback New Testament said, can be experiences we remember for a lifetime, even experiences that shape the rest of our lives. 

And so I suspect that what Jesus is doing here is not just about the mission – though it is about that, urgently – but also about the ones who are sent. Jesus knows his time on earth is drawing short. When he’s gone, he will need people who can carry on his work without him. This first mission trip is about Jesus’ followers – not just the inner circle – learning how to be the church. 

And there is a lot I think we can learn from them about what it means to be the church today. 

What if we saw our mission as going ahead of Jesus to prepare the world for him by healing and proclaiming the Kingdom of God? Not that we have all been imbued with the power to literally heal diseases and cast out demons, but healing can look like a lot of things – creating peace, justice, and reconciliation in individual lives and in our society; offering welcome to those who haven’t always experienced welcome from the world, OR from the church. We have the power to do those things. And proclaiming the Kingdom of God – what if it was the church’s job to point to where we see God already at work in the world, and to embody in our own common life the kind of world we think God wants, just as Luke later describes the early church in Acts? What if we were willing to get out into our community and take risks on the hospitality people might offer us, seeing ourselves not just as the giver of something – service or food, or forgiveness, or grace – but as the receiver, as well? 

What if we felt, again, a kind of urgency to our mission that I’m afraid we’ve lost in the everyday busyness of life? I’m not saying we shouldn’t stop to talk to people on the road – because as they say, ministry often happens in the interruptions. But what if we felt that singlemindedness of purpose, that desire not to be distracted from the work we are given to do? 

That, here, is what Jesus is training the church to be: not just the Twelve, but this large group of followers who all, together, take responsibility for the mission given to them.

Later in Luke 10, the seventy return from their respective missions. They come back together to praise God and process everything that they’ve experienced and learned. They are overflowing with excitement. “Jesus, Jesus!” they say. “You’ll never believe what we did! Even the demons submit to us in your name!”

And Jesus rejoices with them, because they have seen and done things that others have only dreamed of. And, I think, because he knows: the work of God will go on. Soon, these followers will have even more of the story to tell. Soon they will witness to the Kingdom of God which cannot be defeated even by the powers of death. 

The best mission trip, you see, is the kind that doesn’t just last a week. The best mission trip is the kind where you come back, changed for good, and ready to keep following Jesus wherever the road leads. There is healing to be done. There is good news to proclaim. This is our mission, if we choose to accept it.

From the Manger to the Cross: No Looking Back

Scripture: Luke 9:57-62

We are closing in, now, on the second anniversary of the pandemic. It was Thursday, March 12. Then-Governor Northam declared a state of emergency. None of us had any idea what lay ahead. Sometimes, it seems like a million years ago. Sometimes, it seems like any memory of what life was like on March 11 has begun to fade away. Did we really just go places and hang out in big crowds like it was no big deal? Can you imagine life without Zoom?

Sometimes, when talking about life pre-pandemic, people will use a phrase like The Before Times. I used to do such-and-such, in The Before Times. Or sometimes just Before, capital B.  You don’t need any further explanation; everyone knows what you mean. We may be here working on New Normal Plan F by now, but in plenty of ways, there’s no going back.

Here in the Gospel of Luke, we find ourselves in a similar place.

Last week, Jesus took some disciples and climbed what we now know as the Mount of the Transfiguration. As he prayed, his face and clothes began to glow, and Moses and Elijah appeared, and a voice came out of a cloud saying “This is my Son, my Chosen.” When Jesus and his disciples came back down, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

The rest of Luke’s Gospel consists of this journey toward Jerusalem and then, of course, everything that happens there. It is not a very direct journey. Jesus and his disciples will find themselves across Galilee, going through Samaria, outside Jerusalem, and back to Galilee again.[1] Kind of like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, it might not make a lot of geographic sense, but it is leading somewhere. He may not be “on the road to Jerusalem” all this time – but nevertheless, from here on out, he is on the road to Jerusalem.

Even though Jesus doesn’t leave Galilee immediately, it’s clear that something has changed. A corner has been turned. He begins to talk more freely about death and rejection. It’s not all doom and gloom – on the way to Jerusalem, he will also stop for dinner parties. Jesus loves a good dinner party, especially in Luke. But there’s an intensity in his teaching, a sense of foreboding in his ministry, that wasn’t there in the Before Times.

Back in the early days in Galilee, Jesus called fisherman and tax collectors to be his disciples. “Follow me,” he said, and they dropped their nets and got up from their customs booths. Just as simple as that.

Today, you might notice, the conversation goes a little differently.

“I will follow you wherever you go,” volunteers one person from the now ever-present crowd surrounding Jesus. In reply, Jesus almost seems to scoff. “You think so?” he asks. “What if that meant you had literally no place to call home?”

He sounds slightly more optimistic with the next one: “Follow me,” he says, just like Before. “Sure!” that person says. “I just have one important thing to do first; just let me bury my father.” Jesus looks away. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says.

Another person volunteers himself as a disciple. “I will follow you,” he says, “but, first let me go say goodbye to my family.” Jesus shakes his head. “No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say this isn’t the Jesus we met in Sunday School. This isn’t our best friend, let-the-children-come kind of Jesus. This isn’t the Jesus who only asks to be let into our hearts. Because here in Luke’s Gospel are three people who love Jesus and want to follow him! Their professions of faith should be celebrated! – and he more or less tells them to forget it.

The first is overenthusiastic. He comes out of nowhere. His resolve is unconditional. “I will follow you wherever you go!” It’s not that overenthusiasm itself is a sin. Peter can be overenthusiastic, too. But does this would-be disciple really know what that means? Has he thought about what he’s saying? Is he ready to put himself completely at the mercy of the hospitality of others? Is he ready to be hungry, or standing outside in the cold, if that’s what following Jesus entails?

The second wants to follow, but he has commitments that tie his hands. It’s not clear if his father is already dead. But if he is, what kind of son would he be if he didn’t see to his own father’s burial? And if not, what kind of son would he be if he didn’t take care of his own father in his old age? Jewish law demanded both. He wanted to follow Jesus, but there were people counting on him. Surely, we can understand that.

If he had left, would be he really have come back? It’s hard to know.

The third, it seems, is ready to follow. It’s just that he has some loose ends to tie up first. He needs to say his goodbyes, put all his affairs in order, and then he’ll be ready. Just once he checks everything off his to-do list.

No looking back, says Jesus.

The truth is that I’m uncomfortable with the idea that following Jesus is supposed to cost me something. I want to follow Jesus, but I also want to have the security of a comfortable home and a bed that doesn’t make my nearly-middle-aged back hurt and enough money in the bank to one day retire in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed. I love Jesus, but I also want to be able to give my kids all the good things and advantages in life that I had. Don’t I owe them that, as their parent? I want to follow Jesus, and sometimes I also just want to come home at the end of the day and watch Netflix and not worry too much about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Sometimes I think that maybe it’s possible that I can just follow Jesus when I want to. You know, the parts I like. The parts about love and forgiveness, you know, those are good, as long we keep that whole forgiveness thing within some reasonable limits. I don’t really know about giving 10% of my income, much less selling everything I own and giving the money to the poor. What if I could follow Jesus without having to associate or identify with people I find offensive? Because let me be clear, I do find some of Jesus’ so-called followers offensive. Maybe I could just keep the parts where Jesus tells me I’m doing OK, and forgo the parts about having to change my mind sometimes.

“One of the defining features of cosmopolitan Protestantism,” writes Kate Bowler in her new Lenten devotional Good Enough, “is the sweet little promise – whispered even – that Christianity is not going to ruin your life.”[2]

Jesus, however, says otherwise.

I will follow, we say, as long as I don’t have to give up too much of what I think I need.

I will follow, we say, but I have some commitments to fulfill. People are counting on me, once we have the freedom to really make the choice, then you can bet I’m there.

I will follow, we say, but I have plans. Dreams. A bucket list. But when that’s all checked off, I will definitely follow.

And Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “If you want to follow me it will ruin your life.”

To be fair, what it looks like to follow Jesus is rarely as clear as it was for the people in this story. Jesus was right there in front of them, and following him literally meant following him. Meanwhile we’re left here trying to figure out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the midst of this day-to-day life that we have. I don’t really think Jesus wants me to desert my family. If I left home I don’t really know where I would go. I do have some things I’d like to accomplish in my life. I’m not sure I always know how Jesus feels about that. Sometimes, these things just aren’t that black and white.

And sometimes, I’m just good at coming up with excuses.

The season of Lent seems to me to be a good time to do some reflection on our own excuses. What’s stopping us from following Jesus fully? What’s stopping us from loving our neighbors fully? What’s stopping us from letting go of that old hurt or grudge? What’s stopping us from giving more generously?

And then, what can we do to get past that?

The reality is that we never hear the final response from any of these would-be disciples. We can imagine that each of them goes home, rebuffed. Following Jesus simply demands an unreasonable amount.

Or, we can imagine that it went like this:

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” says Jesus to the first. “OK,” says the first, “then I’m ready to face whatever comes, with you.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus to the second. “OK,” says the second. “Then I’ll come on your terms, not mine.”

‘No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God,” says Jesus to the third. “OK,” says the third, “then we go forward, starting now.”

What reason do we have to believe they might have said this? What reason would they have had to give up their security, to forget their plans, to cut their ties, to ruin their lives? Maybe because they know that this is the only way to life: life that happens to lie on the other side of a cross. Maybe because life will never be full or complete or abundant, unless it’s the life of love and sacrifice and trust that Jesus calls us to.

In the words of the great martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”[3]

For Jesus, on this side of the Mount of the Transfiguration, the Before Times are gone. A cross lies ahead, and there is no looking back.

Anyone who wants to follow him needs to be ready.

From them, he demands everything. But he promises everything, too.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p, 140.

[2] Kate Bowler and Jessica Ritchie, Good Enough: 40-ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p, 45.

From the Manger to the Cross: The Turning Point

Scripture: Luke 9:28-36

It is approaching evening, in my imagination, as Jesus takes those first steps up the mountain, with Peter, James, and John close behind. They are tired, but they follow. They know their teacher has had something on his mind recently; they know there is something weighing on him. In fact, it was just the other day when he had begun talking to them about how the Messiah would have to die and rise again – words that seemed weighty, but also didn’t quite make sense.

When something big is coming, they know, their teacher withdraws from the ever-present crowds to pray. This time, they are privileged to go with him. By the time they reach where they are going, it is late. They kneel a way off from their teacher, giving him his space, fighting the sleep that threatens to overtake them.

As the dawn is just beginning to break, and they can hardly be sure they aren’t dreaming, they see it – a change. A brightness that spreads quickly and then dazzles. Jesus’ face, his clothes, like lightning. Before their eyes, he is transfigured. And then they see the men with him – Moses. Elijah. They have, of course, never seen Moses and Elijah before, butjust like in a dream, they know it is them. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk in hushed tones as Peter, John, and James look on, blinking the sleep out of their eyes. Peter stammers an inappropriate response. There is no appropriate response.

And then, just as quickly as it all happened, it is over. They are surrounded by cloud. Moses and Elijah disappear. Jesus’ face is once again a human face, with its dark olive complexion; his clothes are once again covered with dust from the road.

Was it real? What has it all meant, and where do the disciples go from here?

Transfiguration Sunday is what we might call a liminal time. It sits on the edge of two seasons. In the weeks of ordinary time that follow Epiphany, we focus on the unfolding revelation of who Jesus is, through his life and ministry. Lent begins our slow journey toward the cross. The Transfiguration stands in the middle, ushering us from one season into another, inviting us to stop and be dazzled in the meantime.

For this reason, Transfiguration Sunday is a hard Sunday to preach – or at least it always has been for me. It’s a scene that defies too much explanation, and I’m afraid that like Peter, any words I offer will be inadequate.

In the midst of the mystery, however, one thing is clear to me: the transfiguration symbolizes a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.

Until now, Jesus has carried out his ministry in Galilee, the northern region of Israel where he was raised. It is the small towns and backwaters of Galilee where he has taught in synagogues, preached from boats to crowds hugging the shore, proclaimed strange blessings to those who gathered on a level place, told stories of farmers and seeds. It is Galilee where he has healed bodies, slayed demons, and proclaimed good news to the poor.  

This time in Galilee has not been without its challenges or its conflict – from the Nazarene neighbors who run Jesus out of town to the religious experts who try to catch him in the act of blasphemy or Sabbath-breaking. But overall, we leave Galilee with a sense that this time has been one of joy: God’s word is proclaimed. God’s freedom is felt. People clamor to hear and see it for themselves. In these backwater villages, the Kingdom of God truly has come near.

If only things could be that way forever.

But Jesus knows there is more that must be part of his story. Just days before he climbs that mountain, he has begun to talk to his disciples about death.

Just a few verses after they come back down, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

In Jerusalem, his conflict won’t just be with local self-appointed religious experts, it will be with the whole corrupted Temple system and the Roman-sponsored Jewish elites who run it. His teaching will grow more apocalyptic. And one night, as we know – another night when he withdraws to a mountain to pray – he will be betrayed, arrested, and handed over to the Romans.

If, in Galilee, the Kingdom of God has come near, it is in Jerusalem that that Kingdom will clash with one of the greatest kingdoms of this world. The Transfiguration, that night on the mountain, is the turning point from one to the next.

All of us, I’m sure, have encountered turning points in our lives. That fight with a partner that was the beginning of the end, or the act of forgiveness that helped you start to patch things up with a family member. That first admission of needing help. The door that closed that led to others opening. That moment of clarity about what you wanted out of life. That day you walked into church after years away and heard a message that seemed to be targeted right at you.

“A turning point,” one article put it, “is a point in a story when a major narrative shift takes place and the rest of the story will be different.”[1]

It’s not that everything is different all at once. Jesus’ ministry is far from over; we still have over half of Luke’s Gospel to go, and 10 more chapters until he even enters Jerusalem. But from here on out, his eyes are fixed on Jerusalem ahead. From here on out, that is where this road is headed.

After this night on the mountain, the future no longer looks the same as the past.

Why is it that this night of transfiguration stands in the middle of the past and the future, of Galilee and Jerusalem? Maybe it wasn’t the event itself that actually changed anything. After all, Jesus had already tried to tell his disciples what he knew the future held. Maybe, instead, knowing the road that lay ahead, he needed a way to mark the turning. Maybe he needed to speak with these giants of the Israelite faith, to be reminded of the bigger picture of God’s whole story, and the part that his own future would play in it. Maybe he needed to feel the presence of God on the mountain the way Moses and Elijah both did on Mount Sinai in their turns.

“This is my Son, my Chosen one,” says the voice from the cloud, as Moses and Elijah disappear. We have heard words like those before – at another turning point in the story, when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan River, ready now for ministry to begin.

We have a need to mark these transitions, to know when we are decisively going from one thing to another, to remember that God is with us as we do.

I recently finished a book called Bipolar Faith by Monica Coleman. In one part of it, she describes a long period of depression after a particular traumatic experience. Three years after that traumatic experience, she is finally coming out of her depression. The turning point, in one sense, was the ministry she started at the church where she worked, which gave her a reason to get up in the morning and allowed her healing to begin. But she decided she needed something more. The Monica she had known before her trauma was gone now, she realized, and so she set about planning a funeral for that young woman she had once been. She gathered close friends and they read Scripture and sang and danced and eulogized the old Monica. That was a Saturday. On Monday, she had a party to celebrate being reborn. From here, she could start living life as the new person she was.[2]

Jesus, of course, is not yet at the point of dying and rising again. But maybe there was a human part of him that he left on the mountain. It was the part of him that wasn’t yet ready. He enters back into everyday life renewed, believing that God is in all that lies ahead.

At the same time, this isn’t just a turning point for Jesus – but also for his disciples; for Peter, John, and James. They, after all, are the ones who see Jesus transfigured and dazzling. They are the ones who see Moses and Elijah, these giants of Israelite history, appear and disappear before their eyes. They are the ones who are surprised. They’ve been following their teacher around Galilee, hearing him preach and watching him heal and being surrounded by the miraculous, and of course they know there is something special about him, but here, they receive confirmation of who he is. Not just what he can do, but who he is. He is someone who glows with God’s presence, who is the culmination of the story that Moses and Elijah began – not just a miracle worker, but the Son of God.[3]

“Listen to him,” adds the voice from the cloud, clearly directed to the three dazed disciples who witness the scene.

It is morning, in my imagination, as Peter, James and John trudge down the mountain after their teacher, still processing what all of it means. There is talk of death and danger in the air. There is God’s Son, the Beloved, the Chosen, before them.

They can stay in Galilee, the place where they have lived the ups and downs of their lives among the boats and the hills, the place where they first heard the stories of the Kingdom of God. They can stay, remembering happy days, as Jesus goes on alone.

Instead, they too set their faces toward Jerusalem.


[2] Monica A. Coleman, Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith, p. 227-237.

[3] Benjamin A. Foreman, “The Geographical Significance of the Transfiguration” in Lexham Geographical Commentary on the Gospels, Barry J. Beitzel, ed., p. 298: “Rather than revealing his power, it laid bare his divine essence.”

From the Manger to the Cross: The Kingdom of God is Like a Story

Scripture: Luke 8:5-14

I want to invite you, for a moment, to think back on a good teacher you’ve had. Are you thinking of someone? What was it that made this person a good teacher?

I imagine there might be a lot of potential answers to that question, but I want you to simply hold onto yours for now.

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, is first and foremost a teacher. He begins his ministry traveling around Galilee interpreting Scripture in local synagogues, and as his fame grows locally and people demand to hear more, he teaches in houses and on boats and in fields. While he’s doing all this, he’s also healing and casting out demons, which is what we’ve heard more about so far. But as I’ve said before, Jesus doesn’t set out to perform miracles. He sets out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, where the poor receive good news and the chains of the oppressed are broken – and the miracles give weight to his words; they make that good news of which he speaks a reality in people’s lives. After all, a good teacher cares about the whole lives of their students, right?

Last week, we got to hear some of Jesus’ common-sense-in-reverse style teaching as he preached the blessings from his famous Sermon on the Plain. Today, we hear him tell his first real parable. 

Parables are the kind of teaching for which Jesus will eventually be known best. The Greek word parabole means “something thrown alongside,” and these parables are stories, metaphors, and sayings that speak of one thing while they are meant to shed light on another.[1] This first parable is actually a kind of meta-parable, about a farmer who went out to sow seed, and the different kinds of soil on which the seed fell. What kind of soil will the seed of Jesus’ teachings fall on?

This is his first parable, but as Luke’s story goes on, there will be others. We will hear the story of a man who stopped to help a stranger who should have been his enemy; the story of a son who dared to return home after wasting his inheritance; the story of a man who threw a banquet and invited people from the streets when none of his friends showed up. We will hear the story of a woman who lost a silver coin and then found it again, and another one who mixes yeast into dough to make bread; we’ll hear the story of a man who had such an abundant harvest that he had to build bigger barns to store it all in for the future – and then dropped dead that night. We will hear the story of a rich man who ignored the poor man begging in the street in front of his house, but who found their fortunes reversed in the afterlife. 

In all the synoptic gospels – that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who all give similar accounts of the life of Jesus – Jesus teaches in parables. He doesn’t tell all the same parables in each gospel, and it might not surprise you now (in fact, I hope it doesn’t, if you’ve been listening) to realize that Luke’s Jesus tells the most parables about wealth, poverty, and the reversal of power and status: but in all of them, Jesus is a teacher who uses stories to tell his followers what he wants to tell them about the Kingdom of God.

Why? Maybe because that’s what a good teacher does, take hard concepts and esoteric ideas and put them in terms that we can understand. When Jesus tells stories, he uses images based in agriculture, family relationships, employer-employee relationships, cultural celebrations, things his listeners know. Divine grace might be a hard concept to explain, but a man running out of the house to hug his troublemaker son who finally decided to come home is not. 

It’s interesting, though, that when Jesus’ disciples ask him what his deal is with these stories, his answer isn’t that it’s to make God’s ways more accessible to humankind. Instead, he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’”

Is Jesus really saying what I think he’s saying here? Is teaching in parables not supposed to make it easier for us to grasp the mysteries of the Kingdom, but harder? Because that doesn’t really seem like something a good teacher would do. 

Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah, from a passage in which God is giving Isaiah his prophetic commission to proclaim judgment on a people who have forgotten whose people they are. For what it’s worth, the rest of that passage in Isaiah is even more difficult: that they might not repent and be forgiven! In Mark, Jesus quotes the whole thing, as if Jesus wants to confuse people so they don’t repent. Luke leaves that part out. He doesn’t want to go there. Still, does Jesus really want us to not understand?

Maybe, in a way, he doesn’t.

Jesus goes on to explain the parable to his disciples, the inner circle for whom the secrets of the Kingdom have been reserved. The seed, he says, is God’s word. The soil on the path, where the seed immediately gets stepped on, symbolizes people who hear God’s word, but it’s never actually implanted. In one ear, and out the other. The rocky soil symbolizes people who hear God’s word and get excited about it, but it never really takes root, never really goes deep. The thorny soil stands for people for whom the word of God is choked out by the joys and worries of everyday life. And, finally, the good soil stands for people who hear the word, make it part of themselves, let it grow in them, and bear fruit as disciples. 

It might surprise you to know that most mainstream scholars guess that Jesus didn’t actually say that part.[2] These places where the parables get explained piece by piece, they say, are contributions of the early church itself, as the next generations of Jesus’ followers tried to figure all these things out for themselves. That doesn’t mean the interpretation is wrong; it just means that perhaps, originally, Jesus left things a lot more open-ended – for everyone. A story of a farmer, and some seed, and some soil. No one interpretation, or answer key.

We have the need to try to nail things down, though, don’t we? To make sure we know exactly what it means, so that we can be sure we have the right answer, and that those who happen to read things differently have the wrong one?

But maybe Jesus teaches in stories precisely because it’s hard to nail a story down. Maybe one of the things that makes for a good teacher is that they don’t necessarily just feed us information or answers. Instead, they help us make connections and see things for ourselves. They plant a seed, that will germinate and grow in time, and whose fruit may look different depending on the sunlight and the rain and the wind and what particular nutrients are there in that soil. 

The Kingdom of God was never a set of beliefs to be memorized. Has the church made it that? Oh, believe me, we’ve tried. We want to be able to define faith in four steps on a brochure, or in the words of a one-sentence prayer that punches our ticket to heaven, but Jesus didn’t give us those things: instead he asked questions, and told stories apparently meant to confuse us a little, and he didn’t give us an answer key. He didn’t seem to want us to be so quick to proclaim our understanding.

And I wonder what it would be like to approach faith that way, as something more open-ended than a set of concrete beliefs. What if faith was, instead, a set of questions to keep pondering, or a story we got to have a hand in writing? How might that impact our evangelism, if evangelism didn’t just mean feeling the obligation to defend or transmit our doctrine to someone else? What if we just learned to tell our own messy, complicated, unfinished stories instead, and to listen to the ones other people have to tell us?

Let’s go back to that parable Jesus told today, which is often titled the Parable of the Sower. Is it really about the sower? Or, as some commentators have suggested, could it be the Parable of the Seeds, or the Parable of the Soil?[3] Are we, the hearers of God’s word, the soil, charged with clearing our souls of rocks and thorns? Or could we be the sower himself, spreading the word as the early church did? Or are we even asking the wrong questions, and “we” aren’t necessarily anyone, and this is a story about how sometimes, a seed simply doesn’t bear fruit, but when it does, it can bear so much fruit?[4]

It’s not a puzzle to figure out, but an image to sit with, to live with, to chew on: one that may mean different things to us at different times, as the sun shines, and the wind blows, and the rain comes.

The writer Fred Craddock put it this way: “The parable is a form of communication which…permits the listener to bear some responsibility for what is heard.” “Control is lost,” in this method of teaching, he says, “but participation is gained.”[5]

A good teacher would know that seeds tend to be planted deeper that way.

One of my very favorite stories is told by the author Lauren Winner, about a 12-year-old named Julian who was about to be confirmed. “A few days before the confirmation service,” Winner writes, “she told her father [the pastor]…that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it.  She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever.  ‘What you promise when you are confirmed,’ said Julian’s father, ‘is not that you will believe this forever.  What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.’”[6]

The Kingdom of God is like a story we will wrestle with forever.

Let everyone with ears to hear listen. 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p. 108.

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. ?? Luke, p. 178; Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p. 112

[3] New Intepreter’s Bible, Vol. ??, Luke, p. 176.

[4] While I don’t quote her directly here, Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus has been central to my understanding of parables and especially in restraining my temptation to allegorize them – i.e. make each part stand for something specific.

[5] Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p. 109.

[6] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, p. 172.