Secrets  |  Matthew 16:13-20

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. —Benjamin Franklin

Rocks mountain viewIn this Gospel scene, Jesus commands his followers not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. He is blunt. Direct. There is no explanation.

It may be that Jesus knew swearing people to secrecy is one of the best ways to distribute information. If you have picked the right confidants, then your work is done—pretty soon everyone will know what you told them. It’s an efficient system. Try it in any church and see how well it works.

It could also be that Jesus saw that this odd group of followers were not the best representatives of the gospel—not at this point anyway. Simon Peter, standing there with his great shaggy head and fisherman’s hands, was likely to blurt out anything, and he probably resembled a lunatic more than a leader of the faithful.

When Simon Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells Simon that this understanding came directly from God, which is a sideways method of saying that Simon himself doesn’t have that much insight. Just three verses later, after telling his followers to keep his identity a secret, Jesus turns on Simon and calls him Satan for interfering.

These followers are not too solid. They aren’t bedrock.Rocks round opening

Nevertheless, Jesus gives Simon a name that has become famous—Peter, the Rock. Jesus even claims that he will build the church on this odd foundation, Peter the unshaped rock, the loose cannon on the deck of the gospel ship.

It is the grace of the gospel message. Jesus calls an unlikely group of people, men and women of uneven talents and unlikely temperaments, and makes something out of them. The important point is that Jesus is the one doing the building. If we start tacking on rooms, we’ll make something like the Winchester Mystery House in California, with stairways to nowhere and doorways to nothing.

It is better to have faith that God is building something, despite us.

There is also the oddity of the keys. Jesus tells Peter that he will have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to bind or to loose, with effect in this world and in the heavenly world. A lot of people, very much like Simon Peter in many ways, have written a great deal about the meaning and the power of the keys: most of it has come down to authority.

People love authority. They don’t love responsibility.

In ancient times, a trusted servant was as likely as the master to be the one carrying around the key ring. Who wants to carry the cumbersome, jingly things around when you can get someone else to keep track of them? But even so, who has the authority, and who has the responsibility—the one carrying the key or the one knowing how to use it?

A little farther along in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the same power of binding and setting free to all of the disciples who are listening (v18:18). What does that say about the distribution of authority? The gospel message shares the power of setting people free as well as the grace of finding what they have lost.

Perhaps when Jesus told the disciples not to go around telling people that he was the Messiah, Jesus was thinking along the same lines as Francis of Assisi centuries later. Sometimes our words can’t be heard over the noise of our lives. Jesus may have been waiting, shaping the lives of the disciples, so that when they did share the good news, someone might actually have reason to listen.


Finding Shangri-La |  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The perfect land of Shangri-La, made famous by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, has become part of our modern world—perhaps not in reality, but as an ideal. Hilton based the name on the Tibetan paradise, Shambala. We apply the name to any unattainable ideal.

People seem to think that Christianity is about heaven—who gets there, how to get there, what it will be like. There are all sorts of details they will give you about the last days, the last judgment, and particularly about what heaven will be like. We hear a lot of talk about streets of gold, white robes (no jeans), and music. There is also a lot of talk about the kind of people who will get to heaven and the kind of people who won’t. (We take comfort in being able to point out the folk who will not be joining us.)

It is Shangri-La. It is the future that is better than the now.

Walking thru Field of GrassOddly enough, Jesus didn’t really talk about heaven that much. The Gospel of Matthew did record him talking about the kingdom of heaven, but that kingdom seems to have more to do with now and less to do with the future. Jesus kept saying, “The kingdom of heaven is…” but not, “The kingdom of heaven will be…”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus throws out a string of parables like pearls beside the people who came to hear him. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast a woman hid in flour, like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is itself a pearl of great value, worth everything.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. It pulls in everything.

Jesus does talk about sorting fish and pulling weeds, but we are not told that we’ll get to do any of the sorting. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping, the whole reason the net is thrown out there to begin with. And we like to think that we are not going to get culled out, thrown out.

We’re the good stuff. Aren’t we?

We are getting in, but some of those other people are not. At least that’s what lots of Christian folks say.

Jesus says that heaven is not only real, it is really close, as in within us. It is mysterious, like a huge plant growing from a tiny seed. It works without being seen, like yeast in a pile of dough. It is hidden in plain sight, like a treasure in a field. And it is worth more than everything else we’ve been holding onto.

We like to think that other people are the weeds and we are wheat, but maybe we are the field full of both. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping and that other people are the bad catch, but maybe each of us is a net full of all sorts of things, and it is the work of heaven to throw out the bad and to keep the good parts.

We think that heaven is tomorrow and one day, but maybe that kind of thinking just keeps us from seeing God today, here in this kingdom of heaven. Where our treasure is hidden in plain sight. Where everything we see is worth less than what we overlook. Where God is doing mysterious, creative, extravagant things all the time. Where what God is doing is bigger than we imagine it is, even bigger than we imagine it will be by and by.

You know. Here in this heaven. The one that Jesus keeps talking about.


Great Expectations

Praying mantis

Great Expectations  |  Matthew 11:16-30

We expect great things. Sometimes we expect great things from ourselves. Mostly, we expect them from other people.

Sun Through Trees 014

We like to think that we are right, and we tend to suspect that other people are wrong, no matter who they are. Maybe they are well intentioned but misguided. At worst, well, one might want to keep the children away from them.

Here’s an oddity—we seem most inclined to disagree with the people who are most like us. The unknown—a new comet in the sky, a new species of primate in the Congo, a poisonous salamander along the Amazon—may cause fear or loathing or admiration, but never disagreement. To disagree, one must have some knowledge of the other’s position. To disagree vehemently requires intimacy.

To disagree self-righteously requires religion.

In Matthew 11, Jesus is talking about expectations and burdens. That’s the same thing, by the way—an expectation placed on someone’s shoulders transforms into a burden. We are good at placing the burden on other people, though some of us are quite good at putting burdens on our own shoulders.

In the story, John the Baptist is in prison for a prior disagreement with the regional ruler, Herod. It seems that neither of them had met the other’s expectations. Then John sends followers to see whether Jesus is living up to John’s expectations. One may forgive him such an inquiry—it would have been difficult to remain positive in John’s position.

John was a prophet. Ok, he was a pretty weird one out in the wilderness, but he was a prophet. And people expected great things of a prophet.

Jesus talks to a crowd of people about their expectations of John. It seems that the people of Jesus’ day were critical. They were doubtful and slow to believe anyone who spoke to them about God.

Imagine. And this in a day when nearly everyone believed in God. Or gods. Something.

Then Jesus does an odd thing—he starts talking to the crowd about knowing God and about carrying burdens, as if one thing has to do with the other. This is a crowd of the faithful. They are gathered to listen to Jesus talk about God, make public prayers, do a little teaching and preaching. They are familiar with John the Baptist. These are church folk, good synagogue-going folk.

Jesus looks at them, and he see them carrying the burdens of their own religious expectations. He offers to trade with them, to give them a lighter burden, a better set of expectations.

Lighten up, he tells them.

We burden ourselves. In religious life, we love to heave on burdens. Useless stuff. Guilt. Anxiety. The tools of societal control and individual failure. We expect ourselves to be more faithful, more decent, more caring, more involved, more giving, more of all of that to our friends and to our family and to all kinds and sorts of people, real and imagined, who might benefit from our behavior, at least in our own minds. It’s a wonder we can walk under the load. To prop ourselves up, we lean on the notion that we are right. About anything. Everything.

Then we hand out the burdens of our expectations to other people, most of all to brothers and sisters of faith. It’s no wonder people look askance at religion.

No? Then how do we expect a pastor or a priest to behave? Anything short of perfectly? How about other religious folk—teachers, choir singers? As we sit in our miasma of faithful love, what do we think of that family of misfits who arrive late and whose children fidget loudly and well throughout the service? Don’t pretend that we have no expectations of them. Don’t pretend we aren’t carrying burdens of our own making.

We gave up God. We started carrying religion. It’s easier to carry those ideas than it is to love a stranger.

Jesus makes an incredible offer to the people in that crowd. Come, he says, and I will give you a lighter burden to carry. Come, and I’ll give you rest for your souls. What do we do? We hand out weighty expectations, heavy judgment, and loads of guilt.

Further along in this gospel (23:4), Jesus says, “They tie up heavy and hard to bear burdens, and they lay them on the shoulders of the people; but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” He’s talking about us. If you’ve read this far in a reflection on faith, he was talking about you.

We expect other people to think the same way about God that we do. We expect them to live as we do. We certainly don’t care for a weirdo who wears odd clothes, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and above all has the temerity to make us think for ourselves. That’s what really got John the Baptist in trouble, you know. The clothes, the bugs, well, folks could go along with that. The re-thinking part? We don’t like that sort of thing.

We’d rather carry that weight than trade in our burdens.

What about us? Maybe going out in the desert and living on locusts and wild honey wasn’t such a bad idea. Eating bugs may be easier than living up to our own expectations. We might want to trade those in after all.



Liturgy of the Palms  |  Matthew 21:1-11

Expectations. We all have them.

There was an entire crowd watching this man Jesus riding into Jerusalem. They came together just to see him, to line the road with soft tree branches and even with their own clothing. He was a rock star.

Another crowd was watching from inside the city, and they asked who this man was. It was a good question, seeing all the fuss.

This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.

That is the answer the crowd by the road gave, according to Matthew’s gospel. (They didn’t actually have rock stars in the first century.) What they thought about him was less clear, perhaps even to them. They had expectations, though, that much is certain.

We have expectations of God—what God wants, what God is like, what God is doing, often of what God is going to do for us. When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we either blame ourselves as being unworthy or we blame God: guilt or disappointment. We seldom examine our actual expectations.

I might expect my dog to fetch my newspaper. Other people Dogs are Rock Starshave told me that dogs do that sort of thing. I’ve seen it happen in movies. In actuality, my Westie will jump onto the back of a chair by the window and watch me fetch the paper, or anything else that needs to be brought inside. He will, on occasion, fetch something from inside the house and take it outside, such as one of my shoes.

The problem is my expectations. No one, meaning me, ever taught my dog to fetch the newspaper. In fact, I don’t even have a subscription to a newspaper. And if my dog ever went out unsupervised, I suspect that he would just keep going and send me a postcard from Hawaii. Imagining that my dog will fetch the paper is borderline mental deficiency.

We expect things of God. We might deny it, but on some level we expect God to look like the paintings, all robes and a white beard. In reality, God might look like some codger eating shrimp on a porch in Louisiana, or like a little girl with a shimmering rainbow balloon. God might decide to look like my dog, or like something we would not even recognize.

I imagine the last possibility is the most likely. God looks like something we would not recognize, perhaps do not recognize right now, right in front of us. God does things that we do not expect, in ways that do not meet our expectations.

The crowd thought that Jesus was a prophet, coming with the power of God to deliver them out of their problems. If we’ve got it right, Jesus actually was the power of God, and he did come with deliverance, just not the kind that anyone there had in mind. Maybe he wasn’t even bringing the kind that we have in mind.

When we explore the whole faith thing, we expect our lives to change, our problems to be solved, and our lives to become radically transformed, like in a movie. It doesn’t quite turn out that way, not for most of us, not most of the time.

We need to examine our expectations. Or, better, we need to get rid of our expectations altogether.

Don’t expect things about God, how God will look, what God will do, how God will react. That is mere religion, or superstition, or self delusion.

Faith just expects God.