On learning from the wildflowers

And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)

In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”

And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers

I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too! 

How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks. 

I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.

Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter. 

Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle. 

I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?

I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities. 

Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.

Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do. 

Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.

  1. Grow plants

Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants. 

We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat. 

Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home. 

Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.

Not a wildflower, but kind of a cool fungus…what might we learn from it?
  1. Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them

I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.

I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.

This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.

I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.

  1. Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing

I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina. 

For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool. 

I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.

And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.

Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.

These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.

What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!

Who can add a cubit?

And who from among y’all, by worrying, is able to add one cubit to their stature? -Jesus (Matt 6:27, my translation)

Now that I’ve spent a minute reflecting on Jesus’ words about how worry (or at least the bad kind of worry) doesn’t add single hour to anyone’s span of life, I have a small monkey wrench to throw into the whole situation. The original Greek text doesn’t actually directly say anything about lifespans, or about time.

Instead, it uses a word often translated as “stature” or “maturity” (although it also could mean “age”), and a word that means “cubit,” which is a length of measurement around 18 inches. So, what Jesus literally says in Matthew 6:27 is less can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?—and more can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature?

I suggested in my post last week that there are productive kinds of concern, for ourselves and for our communities, that might add something to someone’s life—and that these are the kinds of concerns we want to direct our efforts toward, rather than spinning in circles of unproductive, immobilizing kinds of worry. I suggested asking ourselves, is it adding an hour to someone’s life?

I fully believe all that. And I think can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? is probably a reasonable idiomatic translation of Jesus’ actual words. At the same time, though, I think it’s also interesting to consider what Jesus’ words might imply if we translate them more literally. 

Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature? In this case—assuming we’re talking about adults and not kids—the answer really is a firm “nope.” There are things we can do that might add an hour to someone’s life—but there really isn’t much we can do to add 18 inches to our height. 

Of course, many of us probably wouldn’t want to be a foot and a half taller, anyway. I’m about 5’6”, and I have no particular desire to be 7 feet tall. 

But there are other aspects of who I am that I sometimes wish I could change. 

Jesus’ question about adding a cubit to one’s stature helps me think about these things. There are so many aspects of who we are that we can’t change. Not just height, but other aspects of physical appearance as well. And not just physical appearance, but personality traits, gifts and passions, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural background—just to name a few.

As a swimmer, for example, I might wish I had bigger hands or feet so that I could swim faster, more easily. I don’t exactly want Michael Phelps’ size 14 feet or (totally bonkers) 6’ 7” wingspan—but maybe something a little more in that direction.

Or, as a slightly more serious example, I might wish I thought faster on my feet. Sometimes people associate this ability with intelligence—even though it really implies nothing of the sort.

We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. We all have an interest in some things and a lack of interest in others; preferences for some things over others; natural abilities toward some things, while other things we can perhaps learn over time but with difficulty.

Of course, some of these things are influenced by culture, society, family, upbringing. I’m not trying to say they’re purely genetic. At the same time, many of these childhood influences—the aspects of our surroundings that made us who we are—were out of our control. They’re things we can’t go back and change. They’re built into us, sometimes so surely it feels like they might as well be genetic.

I wonder what life would be like if we really knew that we can’t change the things that are core to who we are. And, really, if we found that we didn’t actually want to change these things.

I think of this quote from Black mental and emotional health advocate Yolo Akili: “Sometimes I wake up and have to remind myself: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. I have patterns to unlearn, new behaviors to embody, and wounds to heal. But there is nothing wrong with the core of me and who I am. I am unlearning generations of harm and remembering love. That takes time.”

I like how Akili puts it. There is nothing wrong with the core of who I am. There is room for growth and change—plenty of it. But there are also things I can’t change, and don’t want to. There is a basic beauty and wondrousness to who I am. As the psalmist puts it in the Hebrew scriptures, I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

I don’t need Michael Phelps’ foot size or wingspan or unusually flexible ankles or any other of his physical characteristics that are uncannily well-attuned to moving quickly through the water. I can just enjoy swimming at whatever speed I’m able to swim at.

And I don’t need to impress people with how fast I can think on my feet. I can learn to appreciate that one of the gifts I bring to a group is a slower-paced thoughtfulness, wanting to consider as much information and as many angles as possible before weighing in with an opinion or making a decision. (For more on this, I liked Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

We can’t add a cubit to our height—and maybe we weren’t meant to. Maybe we weren’t meant to be taller or shorter, or more extraverted or introverted, or louder or quieter, or more quick-thinking or deliberative, or bolder or gentler, or more planning-oriented or spontaneous, or different in any other way from the way we are. Maybe we’re meant to be exactly as we are.

And our communities, whether or not they know it, need us to be exactly who we are. Our strengths fill in for one another’s weaknesses, and our communities need all of the different gifts each person brings.

We might not always be who others want us to be, or what they project onto us, or what they expect from us. We can’t please everybody. We are always “too [insert adjective here]” for somebody.

But in the end, as Jesus says, all our worries about these things can’t add a cubit to our height. We can learn to be considerate of others and attentive to our impact on a community, while also staying true to the core of who we are. We can, to borrow Akili’s words, unlearn the patterns we need to unlearn, embody the new behaviors we want to embody, and move toward healing the wounds we need to heal. And we can do all of this—maybe we can only do all of this—while knowing that there is nothing wrong with us. 

Like the birds and the wildflowers that Jesus goes on to talk about in the next couple of verses, we too have been created wonderfully and beautifully. We are unable to change—and, at our best, we are uninterested in changing—the way we were made to be.

Does this resonate? Hit a nerve? Do you wish you were a cubit taller, or had size 14 feet? Feel free to drop a note!

Is it adding an hour?

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? -Jesus (Matt 6:27)

I’m still teasing out all the random thoughts I had while preparing a sermon a couple months ago on Matthew 6:25-34, the passage where Jesus tells people not to worry and such. So, after some speculations about God as our heavenly mother, and some reflections on birds and value and climate change and hierarchies of species, maybe it isn’t terribly surprising that I find myself circling back to, well, worry.

Jesus asks, can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? To which the answer is meant to be, “nope, not really.” Or something like that.

What’s striking to me, though, is what Jesus’ question seems to imply about what worry is, and what worry is not. Or, what some good kinds of worry might be, and some not-so-good kinds. 

I think Jesus’ words about worry not adding a single hour to our span of life can help us understand—a little more clearly, a little more specifically—what he means when he says “do not worry.” Out of all the things we might think Jesus is telling us not to do, what is it that he is actually telling us not to do? 

Here’s one way of answering this question: Jesus is telling us not to engage in the kind of worry-ful activity that does not add a single hour to our span of life—or, I would add, to anyone else’s span of life.

I think there’s a difference between an unhealthy, unhelpful, un-life-giving, spinning-our-wheels kind of worry that doesn’t actually benefit anyone, versus a productive (or at least potentially productive) kind of worry that might actually help someone. This latter kind of worry is the type that might actually contribute to our own wellbeing, or someone else’s wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the community—that is, that might actually add an hour to someone’s life.

This feels important to me because I think it’s possible, for many of us, that we could hear Jesus say “do not worry,” and we walk away thinking, well, then, I’ll just go on my merry way as if there isn’t anything legitimately worrying, terrifying, awful, unjust, or otherwise deeply concerning in our world. As if it’s okay that a white dude can walk into a crowd of protestors, kill two of them, and be acquitted for it. As if it’s okay that a black dude was hours away from being executed for a crime he did not commit. 

(Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful and relieved that Julius Jones’ death sentence was commuted; at the same time, he never should have been sentenced to death in the first place. And while we’re at it, can we get him out of prison for the crime he didn’t commit, and can we provide some semblance of restitution for the nineteen years he’s been unjustly imprisoned?)

I don’t think Jesus is telling people not to do anything about issues that we find concerning. I don’t think he’s saying “don’t worry about it” in the sense of “everything’s fine,” or “that doesn’t concern you,” or “it’s not your problem.”

Jesus was always concerning himself with other people’s business. He was always eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, paying attention to people no one else paid attention to, calling out leaders on their hypocrisy, touching oppressed people’s lives in healing and liberating ways. I don’t think he wants us to do any differently.

I also don’t think Jesus is telling people not to plan or prepare for the future. This feels important to me as someone who likes to plan—and who sometimes gets the impression that some Christians think things are more holy if they’re spontaneous, as if the Holy Spirit only works on a whim and not also through thoughtful preparation.

When Jesus says “do not worry,” I don’t think he’s necessarily against us making choices, making moves, exercising agency, hustling, working, strategizing, scraping together, making ends meet. These are the kinds of things, after all, that really can perhaps add an hour to someone’s lifespan—ours, or others’ in our communities. 

In a similar vein, I don’t think Jesus is saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. I’m thinking of things like grocery shopping, cooking, supporting local restaurants, exercising, eating healthy foods, resting, playing, doing all the things that make room for us to flourish. These, too, are things that just might add an hour to our lifespans. And that is good.

Worry might be involved in some of these things. We might worry about the fate of a death row prisoner, and so we call or email the governor of Oklahoma to advocate for his sentence to be commuted. We might worry about someone else’s wellbeing, and so we text them or send them a card or bring them something they like to eat. We might worry about our own wellbeing, and so we decide to make a change, like walking more, or having a salad with that frozen pizza (a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with what my husband and I ate for dinner tonight). These are all good, productive things. 

Of course, when it comes to the length of a life, there are so many things we have little to no control over. But there are some things that just might add an hour. And there are other things that definitely don’t.

There’s a kind of worry that can motivate us to go and do something good. And there’s a kind of worry that can immobilize us—a kind of worry that does nothing to move toward justice, nothing to concern itself with others’ wellbeing, nothing to prepare for the future, nothing to take care of our own wellbeing. A kind of worry that doesn’t move toward health, wholeness, flourishing—that doesn’t strengthen us or strengthen our communities.

I think Jesus calls us—as much as we’re able, which is different for everyone—to let go of our immobilizing worries, and to take hold of a kind of healthy concern for ourselves and our communities. The kind of concern that moves us to do good. 

I think Jesus invites us to be people on the move—toward justice, peace, honesty, relationship, health, community. And maybe sometimes, by moving in these directions, we just might add an hour to someone’s life.

More valuable, or just different?

This little cutie pie was chillin in our tree a few months back and let me take her picture

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? -Jesus (Matt 6:26, NIV)

I was surprised to find, while reading Matthew 6:26 in its original Greek, that the word translated as “more valuable” (NIV)—or “of more value” (NRSV), or “more important” (NASB)—is one that I was taught simply meant “differ.” We might read Jesus’ question as: Are you not, rather, different from them? 

I thought this was interesting. But I also remembered that there’s also another passage where Jesus says we’re more valuable than many sparrows. I thought, maybe the Greek is more clear in that passage—which might suggest that this one should be translated as it usually is. 

So I looked the other passage up. It’s Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (NIV). It turns out, though, that here too the word translated as “worth more” is the same word used in Matt 6:26—the one that could be translated not as “worth more” or “more valuable” but just as “different.” 

Same thing with the similar stuff Jesus says in Matt 12:12 (How much more valuable is a person than a sheep?), Luke 12:7 (Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows), and Luke 12:24 (And how much more valuable are you than birds?). It’s all the same Greek word.

I’m not saying there aren’t potentially some good reasons to translate this word as “more valuable.” But does seem interesting that it could be just “different.”

I think about the idea that humans are “more valuable” than birds or sheep or other creatures, and I wonder if it plays into the global climate crisis we’re in—that is, into the damaging mindset that has gotten us here. I wonder if it isn’t terribly helpful to keep thinking of the world as a hierarchy of species, where humans are more valuable than other creatures—to keep thinking of humans as if we are separate from the rest of the created world, as if we are better, as if we are free to do whatever we want without considering its impact on other species and on the land.

Yes, humans are valuable. And so are birds. And so are wildflowers, and so is every other aspect of the natural world that surrounds us. And the reality is that we are all dependent on one another. We all flourish together, or none of us flourishes. 

Humans are different from birds; we are different from every other species, just as each of these species is different from one another. But we aren’t part of a special privileged class of species that isn’t affected by the earth’s sickness. We are affected—especially the materially poor among us, and especially communities of color.

I think about the biblical creation story. I used to think God only declared creation “very good” after God made humans (Gen 1:31), which meant that humans were especially awesome. Now I see that when God declared creation “very good,” God wasn’t just talking about humans. God was speaking of the whole world and all its beings as a collective whole—not just humans, but also plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, water, land. A unified, interconnected, interdependent whole. This is what was—and is—“very good” indeed.

God is the creator and the good caretaker of the birds, and the waters, and the plants, and the humans—of all God has made. All of these creations are gloriously unique, each different from the other. Does one have to be called “more valuable” than another?

Each species has different needs, different gifts, different challenges, different kinds of goodness and beauty to offer. God sees and honors all of it. God feeds the birds and God feeds the humans, in the different ways we need to be fed, the different things we hunger for.

Certainly humans have different needs from those of the birds. But is one better, or worse? Worth more, or less? It seems like a bit of a human impulse to label things in this way—and perhaps especially the impulse of a certain kind of human who has lost a sense of connection with the natural world.

But we are not disconnected from the natural world. Living as if we were has brought us to the precipice of a terrifying new era of natural disaster. There may still be ways to walk back from this precipice—but we’ll need to make some deep changes to our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of relating.

Maybe we can start with rethinking the hierarchies we’ve created among species. We can learn to see humans as an interdependent part of the natural world, not separate from or better than the rest of it. We can learn to see ourselves as different from birds, but not necessarily more valuable.

And maybe, in so doing, we can learn to see the God who loves and longs to take care of us all—of the whole “very good” creation God has made.

Y’all’s heavenly…mother?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. -Jesus (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

Or, in my translation: “Y’all, look at the birds of heaven, because they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and y’all’s heavenly father feeds them.”

The “birds of heaven” thing might sound weird. But the word usually translated as “air” when it comes to the “birds of the air” is very closely related to the word translated as “heavenly” when it comes to God, the heavenly father. 

So I’m not sure which is weirder: writing “birds of heaven,” or translating the same word two different ways within the same sentence.

Alternatively, since this word for “air” or “heaven” could also be translated as “sky,” perhaps we’re talking about the “birds of the sky” (makes sense)…and God the “sky father” (atypical of Christian language). I’ll just leave that there. 

Anyhow, since we’re talking about God our heavenly (or sky?) father, let’s talk about what this father God does, according to Jesus: God is the one who feeds the birds. 

As Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, he wants his listeners to know that they have a God who pays attention to the birds, a God who takes care of the birds—and, to be specific, a God who provides food for these birds.

I think it’s interesting to think about God as one who feeds. 

The God of the Bible has both masculine and feminine aspects—or something like that. It’s clear, at least, that both male and female humans were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27). 

But when you try to get into any sort of specifics about what those masculine and feminine aspects might be, it starts to get kind of dicey, kind of fast. It’s hard to talk specifics without wandering haplessly into the realm of gender essentialism—the idea that men always have one set of characteristics and women always have another. I’m not about that. 

So I guess I’m not really into descriptions of God that try to specify which aspects of God, exactly, are more masculine, and which are more feminine. I think the concepts of masculine and feminine are culturally determined; they’re defined very differently by different communities in different places and times.

At the same time, I recognize that, in most times and places and cultures, the work of food preparation—of cooking and serving food to families and communities—has tended to fall primarily to women. I think about this, when I think about God feeding the birds.

It strikes me that, while Jesus does use the word “father” to refer to God, really, his point is not particularly to masculinize God. His point is to put words to the kind of parent/child relationship he has with God: Jesus is a child of God, family of God, kin of God. Jesus is as intimately connected with God as a child to a parent. 

I don’t mind picturing God as an awesome (heavenly) father figure who loves to cook up meals of seeds and worms and such—generously offering food for his family, the birds, to eat.

On the other hand, I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus that the women in his world were usually the ones responsible for meal prep. Could God, then, be a (heavenly) mother figure just as much as a heavenly father—cooking up delicious meals for her family, the birds, to enjoy?

I feel like this adds some texture to the image—a different angle, and a little more fullness. We can picture God as an awesome (heavenly) mother figure who loves to provide nourishing meals for her (avian) family. God is doing “women’s work” here; why not imagine God as feminine? 

I wonder what insights, thoughts, or feelings this kind of image might evoke. How might it help us relate more fully, more wholeheartedly, to the fullness of who God is? How might it change our view of the God who is Jesus’ heavenly parent, and ours—of the one who takes care of the birds, the one Jesus invites us to trust for our own care and nourishment?

I wonder how spiritual life is different when we remember that God is as feminine as God is masculine. I wonder what this might mean for women—and for people of all genders, and for churches as a whole. Maybe we’d picture God differently; maybe we’d picture God a little more fully.

Thoughts? Feelings? Accusations of heresy? I’d love to hear!

Worry can be good?

When I was studying Matthew 6:25-34 to preach on it (see the post below for the full passage…and mini-sermon), I looked up the Greek word translated as “worry.” I wanted to see where else this word is used in the New Testament. I was surprised to find that it can be used in a positive way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens church communities to human bodies, full of different parts that all function together as one complete, hopefully-healthy organism. At one point, while fleshing out (pun intended) this metaphor, Paul writes, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:24-25, NIV). 

The word translated as “concern” in this passage is the same word translated as “worry” in Matthew 6. That last part of 1 Cor 12:25, literally translated, could read something like this: “the parts should be the same worried on behalf of one another”—or, slightly more natural-sounding, “the parts should be equally worried for one another.” Paul wants the different parts of body—that is, the unique and diverse set of humans who make up the faith community—to be worried about one another.

In another of his letters, Paul writes—this time to the Phillippian faith community—that he hopes to send Timothy their way soon for an encouraging visit. And Paul wants them to know that Timothy is hella dope (as the kids these days might say). He says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil 2:20). 

As you may have guessed, this word translated as “concern” here is also the same one that means “worry.” Timothy worries about the Philippian Christians’ welfare. And Paul considers this a praiseworthy thing.

It’s easy to say that worry is bad, that people of faith should not have worry in our lives. If we trusted God more, we wouldn’t worry.

At the same time, though, as people of faith, our first—maybe only?—job is to love God and love people. We want to love others, to care about one another as humans, to be concerned for one another. And when we care about one another, sometimes we worry about one another’s wellbeing. I think that’s all okay. That’s all good. 

When we hear Jesus say, then, in Matthew 6:25, “do not worry,” it seems important to remember that the sentence doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say “do not worry,” period, with no context around the instruction. Rather, he goes on to say, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” 

It isn’t a general, across-the-board, “worry is bad; let’s get rid of it.” Jesus doesn’t guilt-trip worriers—which would really just give them another thing to worry about: that all their worry isn’t pleasing to God.

Instead, I think, God offers a hope of redirecting our worries. God offers a hope of being part of communities where all our needs are provided for, because we’re all sharing what we have with one another as we’re able. 

Perhaps if we were all equally worried for one another (as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 12)—or if we all had as much genuine worry for one another’s welfare as Timothy did for the Philippians (from Phil 2:20)—then, truly, none of us would need to worry about our own clothing, or food, or where these things will come from. These things would be provided for in the context of a community full of mutual concern.

Maybe worry isn’t always bad. Maybe worry can be good—when we’re worried on behalf of one another, looking out for one another in community, sharing our concerns and our joys with one another, genuinely caring for one another. 

Have you seen worry be a good thing? Other thoughts or quibbles? Holler in the comments!

Learn from the wildflowers: a mini-sermon on Matthew 6:25-34

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

Thankful for the opportunity to give another short sermon at Lake B a couple weeks ago. I’m always glad to have opportunities to preach – but really I’m mostly grateful to have been pushed to think a lot about this text.

Matthew 6:25-34 was actually one of the texts that I came up with as part of a group brainstorming session around a sermon series on uncertainty. I wanted to hear someone wrestle with Jesus’ words. How dare Jesus tell people not to worry – in the midst of all the brutality and poverty and Roman occupation and violence of their day? And what might this passage possibly have to say to us, in our own time of brutality and mind-blowing wealth inequality and oppressive governments and violence?

I wanted to hear someone wrestle with it – but I didn’t really want that person to be me. But here we are!

Thankfully, this is another one of those group sermons in which three people reflect on the same passage. I’m so glad to have Michelle Lang-Raymond and Paul Kim as awesome partners in the conversation. Check out the service here, if you like; the three sermons start around 19:49.

Anyhow, here’s the text, and then the sermon. Feel free to holler with all your worries – okay, fine, maybe all your thoughts about worry? – in the comments. (I also had so many random thoughts while studying this passage that I’ll probably be posting more reflections on it over the next few weeks, so…you’ve been warned.)

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” -Jesus (Matt 6:25-34, NRSV)

Jesus says, “do not worry.” Awesome! I hear that, and I immediately stop worrying about all the things I’m worried about. I’m done with worry, forever. Sermon over.

Just kidding. For most of us, I think, it’s not that easy. But this is how scripture passages like ours this morning in Matthew 6 can come across, sometimes. 

There’s a more recent-ish name for this sort of thing: toxic positivity. When people say things like, “don’t worry”; “don’t be so negative”; “think happy thoughts”; “look on the bright side”; “everything happens for a reason”; or, my favorite, “well, it could be worse…”

People call this toxic positivity because these kinds of statements tend not to be actually helpful for people who are going through difficult things. Life is difficult, and many of us have real worries – worries that don’t just magically go away if someone tells us not to worry. Even if that someone is Jesus.

So, if Jesus isn’t just dispensing toxic positivity here, what is he doing? How is this scripture good news?

I think part of the answer involves whom these words are for. 

Jesus’ words here are part of his Sermon on the Mount. Just a few moments earlier, in this sermon, Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Matt 6:19-21).

And then, right before our “do not worry” passage, Jesus says, “you can’t serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).

Jesus isn’t just saying “don’t worry” in general. He’s speaking to a particular kind of worry, here: worry about not having enough material stuff. What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?

He’s speaking about material stuff, and he’s speaking to a particular group of people: people who have enough stuff that it’s easy to want to store it all up, to want to gain more and more of it so they can stockpile the extra – storing up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy.

I don’t think Jesus is speaking here to people who are struggling to pay rent or utilities bills, or to buy groceries. He isn’t telling these people “just don’t worry!” – at least not without also doing something to take care of their needs. 

I think Jesus is mostly speaking here to those who have plenty, but who still worry. As we tend to do. After all, everything in our society is geared toward this kind of continued, ongoing, chronic worry. Everything in the systems we live in tells us: Don’t be content with what you have. You need more. Look, that person has more. Don’t you want what they have? Keep working longer and harder to get more. Don’t complain or question the system. Keep storing, keep stockpiling. Keep accumulating. Never be content.

This is the fuel our society runs on. And it’s also killing us.

When people who have bought into this system take a step back, and begin to follow Jesus into a life not so focused on storing up material stuff, these people are freed to live bigger, fuller, more interesting and beautiful lives. As Jesus says, life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 

It’s not only that, though. The other thing that also happens, when people who have more than enough learn not to worry and stockpile, is that their extra resources are freed up. Their resources are no longer hoarded for themselves alone but are freed up to be shared with their community. 

And, in this way, the whole community begins to find that their needs are met. The whole community begins to find that – in reality, not just in a toxic positivity kind of way – no one needs to worry about not having enough material stuff.

All this not worrying, of course, is easier said than done. How do we make this transition, from stockpiling for ourselves to sharing generously with others? This can apply to anything we have, really – whether that’s money, food, or clothing, or gifts, skills, or insights, or a listening ear, or whatever it may be. Everyone has something to offer.

How do we learn to live in this not-worrying, interconnected, generously sharing, giving and receiving, mutually thriving kind of way? 

Jesus says, look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field – lilies, which could also be translated as wildflowers. 

Living beings like birds and wildflowers are exactly the kinds of things we tend to ignore when we’re focused on striving to build up wealth beyond what we need. Birds and wildflowers are the kinds of things we tend to overlook and undervalue while we’re busy running around in circles on the capitalist hamster wheel. 

Jesus sees the birds and the wildflowers, and he invites us to see them, too. 

When Jesus says “consider the lilies,” or “see the lilies,” in our translations, that’s actually a pretty strong word in the Greek. It could be translated as “examine carefully,” “observe well,” or “learn thoroughly.” Jesus says: Examine the wildflowers carefully. Learn thoroughly from them. 

Jesus invites us to consider: what might these wildflowers have to teach us – the ones who don’t toil or spin and yet are clothed so beautifully? What can we learn about value? About trust? About connectedness with the living beings around us? About worth, and worthiness? About beauty? What can we learn about growth? About how to live as part of the natural world? About how to live sustainably?

Spending time in nature often tends to bring a sense of peace – reminding us of beauty and wonder, of a world bigger than our worries. I think Jesus knows this as he invites us to consider the birds and the wildflowers. 

And I think Jesus also means to redirect our attention from the places it often tends to go. Jesus helps us sit at the feet of different teachers from the people people in our society tend to listen to. He invites us to learn – to learn thoroughly – from the natural world, to let the birds and wildflowers teach us how we might live.

In the midst of devastating climate change, I think Jesus invites us to stop living as if we aren’t dependent on the health of the earth, as if we aren’t impacted by the earth’s sickness – that is, by the sickness humans and our profit-obsessed systems have caused, through all of our competitive striving, through our obsessions with stockpiling money, no matter what the cost.

Jesus knows there are real, legitimate things to worry about. He says, toward the end of our passage: tomorrow will bring worries of its own. 

And he also says this: today’s trouble is enough for today. He says, in effect, be present in this moment. Be present with today’s troubles. Don’t turn away from today’s suffering – in our world, in our communities, in the lives of those we love, in our own lives. Be present, today. 

And Jesus also says this: seek first the kingdom of God. He says, in effect, I’m building a different kind of kingdom. In this kingdom, you don’t have to keep striving for more. In this kingdom, we look to the birds and the wildflowers to teach us how to live. In this kingdom, we don’t stockpile but we share – and as everyone shares, everyone has enough. 

Jesus invites us to join him in this kind of kingdom – in this kingdom of peace, this kingdom of sharing, this kingdom of justice.

Beyond Judging Doug: a mini-sermon on the parable of the talents

I had another chance to give an eight minute mini-sermon at (online) church this past Sunday. The text is below if you’re interested, or feel free to watch the video here. My part starts around 39:57. Esther Lee before me (starting around 33:43) and Michael Won after me (starting around 48:44) both have great things to say―it could be worth listening to all three perspectives on the parable if you have time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. What did you find interesting or helpful in the sermon? What questions does it raise? How do you make sense of this gnarly parable in your own life and community?

The Bible text is Matthew 25:14-30. Jesus is talking to his disciples here. Here’s the NIV translation of it:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Here’s the mini-sermon:

One of the things that’s kind of awesome about Jesus’ parables, and sometimes kind of confusing, is that they can be considered from so many different angles. We can find ourselves in different places in the story. We can read the same story at different times in our lives and find that we ask different questions of it, and it asks different questions of us. 

This morning, as we consider this parable, I want to explore the story from a particular angle: the perspective of the servant who was given just one bag of money. And, because “the servant who was given just one bag of money” is kind of a mouthful, I’m just going to call him Doug. (Because he went and dug a hole.) Let’s think about this parable from the perspective of Doug. 

So, we’ve got this rich dude, who has all these money bags lying around―you know, relatable―and he goes on a journey. Before he leaves, he entrusts a bunch of his money to three of his servants. I’m going to call the rich dude a “lord,” because that’s the language of the text.

The text doesn’t tell us where our friend Doug is while his lord is giving five bags of money to one servant and two bags of money to another servant. But I imagine them being all together in the same room. 

The lord speaks to each servant in turn, in full sight of the others, and says, “here, you take five bags of money.” Then, “here’s two bags of money for you.” Then, finally, turning to Doug: “here, take one bag of money.”

Maybe the lord even says out loud what the text says he’s thinking: “I’m entrusting money to you according to your ability.” In other words, this is what I think of you, what I think you’re capable of. This is how competent I think you are.

This is a short part of the story, but I feel like there’s a lot going on here. What would it be like to have the person you’ve worked for, maybe for a long time, say, basically, this is what I think of you? I think you have, maybe, one fifth of the ability of this coworker, and, mm, about half the ability of this other one.

It can be easy to judge Doug―to join his lord in saying, as he says later on, you wicked and lazy servant. But I also kind of empathize with Doug. I can see how he might think, well, my lord clearly doesn’t think much of my abilities. I don’t want to prove him right by taking risks with his money and maybe losing it all. I’d better not make any mistakes. I’d better just make sure he gets his money when he comes back. 

Don’t we sometimes live up to―or down to―others’ expectations of us? 

I can also see Doug looking around and comparing what he has to what the other two servants have. I can see him thinking: I’ve got nothing. I have nothing to work with here. What does he expect me to do?

The thing we can see easily, from outside the story, is that a money bag, or in some translations a “talent,” is, in fact, a lot of money. Scholars estimate that in this context it was equal to around six thousand denarii―a denarius being the average daily wage of a worker. 

So―if y’all don’t mind some quick math―if we take the Washington state minimum wage of $13.50/hour, and we assume an eight hour work day, a denarius would be $108. And one of the money bags in our story would be six thousand times that, so $648,000.

That’s a lot of money! Doug could have bought a house in some parts of Seattle. 

And yet, in these terms, one other servant was given $1.3 million, and the other, over $3 million. It would be easy for Doug to look around, and compare, and envy others who have more. 

But what if, instead, Doug was able to see past these things. To see the abundance of what he has been given. To dream of the possibilities of what he could do with it. 

Maybe he could have even dreamed together with the other two servants: what can we do with these collective resources we have? How could we put them to work to benefit our community? Maybe they could have put all their money bags together, and used all of their collective perspectives and skills and areas of expertise to decide together how to invest it. 

And maybe―especially if Doug really did in some way have “less ability” than the others―maybe the others could have seen that and offered to help. They could have said, Hey Doug. We have more experience managing money than you do. Would you like some help figuring out what to do with yours? Maybe we could eat dinner together tonight and we could brainstorm some ideas together.

This might sound a little over the top. But we talked about a similar thing with the bridesmaids from last Sunday, in the story Jesus tells right before this one―why didn’t the five prudent bridesmaids offer to share their extra oil with the five foolish ones? Are these three servants terribly different?

I also wonder, here, if Doug has considered this question: why did his lord choose to entrust his money to these servants while he went on his journey? Wouldn’t it have been safer to dig a hole in the ground himself, and hide all the money bags there? 

I wonder if he took this risk because he wanted to empower his servants by sharing what he had with them. Maybe he wanted to give them some significant resources to work with, and see what they could do. Maybe he wanted to see how his resources could be put to work for good in the community in ways he himself hadn’t thought of or hadn’t been able to do. 

I don’t think Doug was able to see these kinds of possibilities.

The text tells us that, instead of all these things that could have been, Doug departed. He goes off by himself, leaves the others, goes off to a place that only he knows about, digs a hole, and buries the money there―isolated from his fellow servants, or any sort of community.

Moving out of this story Jesus tells, and into our world today, we find ourselves still within the first two weeks after the US presidential election, and just over one week after the results were called. Many of us have been breathing a sigh of relief. Some have been dancing in the streets. Some might be skeptical or cautious, not quite ready to feel much of anything. Some might feel mournful about a lot of what we see in the news and where we’re at as a country.

Let’s continue to make space to feel any or all of these things, or however we might feel. And then, let’s get back to work. Let’s keep on putting what resources we have to work, for the good of our local communities, in all of their diversity and complexity and messiness and beauty. And there is plenty of good work still to do.

We might feel like Doug, with his one bag of money. We might look around and think, I don’t have much. Or, I don’t have what someone else has

Maybe in this time we’re being invited to resist these tendencies to look around and compare. To resist our tendencies to dig a hole in the ground and bury what we have―to make choices out of fear, or a scarcity mindset, or insecurities, or comparison, or isolation.

Maybe we’re invited instead to take stock of our resources, and to see that, collectively, we have resources in abundance: skills, and experiences, and abilities, and perspectives, and gifts, as well as material stuff. Let’s put it all to work―for healing and justice, in our communities and in our world.

Mini-sermon: A Different Kind of Power

I had the chance this last weekend to share a 7-8 minute mini-sermon for my church’s online worship service, so I thought I’d share it with y’all as well.

If you prefer to watch a video, the service is on YouTube here. My part starts around 36:34, but check out the other two mini-sermons before and after too, if you have time…and/or the awesome sung version of the Lord’s Prayer at 25:35…and/or just the whole service.

We’re going through the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) line by line, and the line for this week was “your kingdom come, your will be done.” My hope is that these reflections feel relevant to this week, including the grand jury’s failure to satisfy justice in regard to the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, as well as Senate Republicans’ plan to try to replace RBG on the Supreme Court before the election.

Here’s the mini-sermon! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

One of the things I think is really cool about this line of the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done,” is that the Greek verb translated “come” is a verb of movement. Real, physical, location-in-space kind of movement.

It’s a really common verb, one that’s used all the time for various comings and goings. The same word that’s used for things like “Jesus went to Capernaum,” or “Liz came home from Fred Meyer.” (That one’s not in the Bible, but it’s the verb that would have been used.)

It’s not just “the coming kingdom” in terms of time, as in, “wait for it…it’s coming…someday…maybe? keep waiting…” It’s not just “yeah, God’s kingdom will come…in the end times”―Left Behind-style, for anyone willing to admit to having been into that. It’s not these things. 

It’s “we want God’s kingdom to move―to really move―more fully into our realm of existence, in a tangible way, here, and now.” 

This verb can also have to do with making an appearance, like coming before the public. I like this image―maybe when we pray together “your kingdom come,” we are saying that we want to see God’s kingdom make an appearance. Sometimes it’s so hard to see. We’re saying we want to see it. We want to see God’s kind of reign make a public appearance.

It’s also a really strong verb tense here, almost like we’re commanding the kingdom into showing itself. Almost like we’re speaking it into moving, into making itself known―and speaking ourselves into awareness of this kingdom. We’re saying, we want to see this kingdom where we didn’t see it before. Your kingdom come.

I want to acknowledge that the word “kingdom” can be kind of a weird word, or a loaded one. Maybe it sounds kind of patriarchal, or imperialistic, or colonialist, or anti-democratic, or just odd and antiquated. 

I looked up some other ways the Greek word for kingdom might be translated, and one of them, that I kind of liked, was “royal power.” The kingdom is a matter of royal power

So, when we say “your kingdom come,” we’re saying that we want to see power operating differently from a lot of the ways we see it operating when we look around us. We’re saying, the ways in which power is exercised and taken and stolen and hoarded and used and abused in this world are not working. They’re not good. We want something different. Let a different kind of power come. Let power operate differently among us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which is where the Lord’s Prayer is situated in the book of Matthew, we see Jesus dreaming out loud about all sorts of ways power could operate differently from how it often does in our world. 

We see Jesus speaking of a kind of royal power that belongs to the poor in spirit (that’s Matthew 5:3; in a passage that mirrors this one, in Luke, it just says “to the poor”).

We see Jesus speaking of a kind of royal power that belongs to those who have been pursued and persecuted on account of justice (that’s Matthew 5:10). Theirs, too, is power. 

And when we pray “your kingdom come,” we’re saying that these are the kinds of directions we want to see power move in: toward people who are poor, toward people who pursue justice to the point of being penalized for it by the systems and structures of injustice.

As Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount, we see him continue to flesh out his vision of what power could look like. 

We see that he envisions people―all sorts of ordinary people―empowered to refuse to treat others with contempt. Empowered to be reconciled with others. Empowered to cut out things that bring evil into our lives. Empowered to be loyal to our commitments in relationships. Empowered to speak simply and honestly. Empowered to give generously of what we have been given. Empowered to love even our enemies and the people who persecute us, and to pray for them―which doesn’t mean we excuse what they do or stay in abusive relationships, but that we say, the cycle of hatred ends with us. (This is all following pretty closely with the Sermon on the Mount up to the Lord’s Prayer.)

When we pray “your kingdom come,” we’re saying we want to see this kind of power―on the move, rising up, making a public appearance, in our world, now. We want to see Jesus’ kind of light-shining, evil-exposing power; Jesus’ kind of healing, restoring, transforming power.

We’re saying we want this, urgently. We’re saying we want this, desperately.

When mind-bogglingly large areas of the US West Coast are on fire, and people are displaced and losing homes and dying, and we’re all covered in unhealthy smoke from it, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. The ways our nation engages with this beautiful, resilient, and fragile earth that gives us life are not good. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways. 

When our reality is full of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown and immigrant lives and bodies, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. God, the ways our nation terrorizes people and communities who are beautiful and beloved and made in your image are not good. It dehumanizes all of us. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

When powerful people’s words are full of hate, and when media sources misinform and lie, and when social media algorithms manipulate us behind the scenes, and when powerful people attempt to sabotage elections to stay in power, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

When a global pandemic, and powerful people’s mishandling of it, takes so many lives, and so many more lives than necessary, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

So, then, when we get to the “your will be done” part of the prayer, I don’t think we’re talking about a demure, shrinking, submissive: “well, I don’t really know what’s right or good, so…whatever you want, God.”

I think we’re talking about storming the gates of heaven―about being much more demanding with God than many of us might feel comfortable being or were taught to be. 

We’re talking about saying: God, we know you want justice. We know you want love. We know you want people to flourish and not to perish. We know you want us to take better care of this one earth you’ve entrusted to us.

We’re saying, we are desperate for all these things to happen. Please come and do them. Please help us be people who do them. Please help us be a community that does your will. 

We want to desire the things you desire, to want the things you want. We want to see your different kind of power on the move. We want to be aligned with the ways your kind of power operates, so differently from what we see. 

Let your kingdom come, your will be done.

Late to the Vineyard

Is your eye bad because I am good?

That’s a very literal translation of the second half of Matthew 20:15, which is often translated or are you envious because I am generous? (e.g. NIV, NRSV).

I’m thinking about this story, which Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16, about several different sets of workers who end up working in the vineyard of a particular landowner.

The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people and agrees to pay them one denarius at the end of the day. Then the landowner goes out again several more times throughout the day and hires several more groups of people, who end up starting work at different times, some as late as 5 pm.

In the evening the landowner gathers everyone together to give them their wages, starting with the people who were last to begin work, and giving them, surprisingly, an entire denarius, even though they only did a couple hours of work. The people who worked all day then expect that they will receive more than the agreed-upon denarius; but when it comes their turn to get their paycheck, the landowner gives them just one denarius―the same as the people who didn’t work nearly as long.

The ones who started work early in the morning complain that it’s not fair, after they bore the burden of the day and the burning heat (literal translation from v. 12), but the landowner replies, friend, I do not do you wrong; did you not agree with me on a denarius? (literal translation from v. 13). The landowner says, I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish among what is mine? Or is your eye bad because I am good? (literal translation from v. 14-15).

I think about this parable, and I think about the remarkable moment we’re living in, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained enormous waves of new momentum―particularly among white (and in some cases other non-Black) people who are finally waking up to the reality that all is not well in US race relations, finally gaining the will to try to do something about it.

The negative side of all this is that some people and organizations make statements, post on social media, attend protests, etc. for the main purpose of not appearing racist, of not seeming to be on the wrong side of history. They voice their support for BLM because it’s the popular thing to do in this moment but do not actually intend to change anything about their lives or their organizations to make them truly anti-racist, to make them truly just.

But on the positive side, I think―or at least I really want to think―that there really are new workers in the vineyard. In this moment there really are―on a vast, societal level―hordes and hordes of people who are finally letting their eyes be opened to the truths our Black siblings have been living and speaking about for a long, long time. There really are hordes and hordes of potential new partners in the struggle for a different kind of world, a world of equality and embrace rather than prejudice and exclusion, a world of true justice and true peace. 

People who are new to the vineyard are often not yet very good at their work. They make rookie mistakes. They have a lot to learn. Sometimes they do more harm than good.

I wish it were not this way―and yet such is the process of learning how to do a new kind of work, of learning how to work in different ways, of unlearning so many assumptions and ways of being. Such is the reality of arriving to the vineyard―beginning to engage in the work of justice and anti-racism―late in the day.

Speaking on behalf of the only people I can speak for, white people, part of engaging in the work of the vineyard is to be open to being corrected; to look for ways to figure out what we don’t know; to look for opportunities to learn, and to engage in those opportunities with open-mindedness and without defensiveness; to look for ways to follow the lead of people of color who have been doing this work for a long time―who have, truly, in their own lives and for too many generations of their ancestors’ lives, borne the burden of the day and the burning heat. It’s to honor this work that has already been happening for a long time and to find ways to join in, without needing to try to take the lead or needing to pretend that our own work is somehow equal to it.

It’s to look for resources that offer ways of listening and learning that don’t further burden our friends of color by expecting them to teach us. It’s to look for fellow white people who have been working in the vineyard longer than we have, to ask them the questions we worry are hurtful or ignorant or offensive, to work together to unlearn the racism that lives within us.

It’s to do the kinds of internal work René Velarde names so candidly and thoughtfully in his recent blog post, To my White brothers and sisters. We must ask ourselves, as René writes, what did it take for us to wake up to racial injustice and our own white privilege and begin to speak? What has kept us from speaking up and engaging before? If we dig into these things now, René says, we will be better equipped to stay engaged in the struggle for justice in the future. 

I realize that the parable of the vineyard is by no means a perfect analogy to the present moment, particularly in regard to the image of people standing around doing nothing before the landowner invites them into the work. For white people in the US, I’m not sure there is any way of standing around and doing nothing. If we haven’t been actively working against racism, we have been perpetuating it. It’s the current that we swim in and the air we breathe, and we either fight it or are swept along with it―to the detriment of people of color and to our own humanity as well. There isn’t a lot of neutral ground.

But parables aren’t meant to be allegories, where everything lines up perfectly and represents something else. They’re meant to evoke something. To provoke thought. To challenge us and help us see differently, see more clearly. And in this case I think the story of the vineyard evokes some important reflection on what it might mean for long-standing justice movements to suddenly encounter so many new people who want to jump in.

My hope is that―as lots of us begin the work of racial justice for the first time and desire to work alongside those who have been engaging in the struggle for a long time―there is room for all of us, in the different places we are in in our journeys. 

I don’t think there is room in the vineyard for people who are pretending to work, who want to hang out there because it’s the cool thing to do or because it’s a way to avoid being criticized for standing around doing nothing. I don’t think there is room for people who are in the vineyard because they want to take selfies there and post them on Facebook. 

But I want to believe that there is room for all those willing to work, those willing to learn, to try, to be humbled, to make mistakes and grow and keep engaging. Even if, from the perspective of those who have been working since the early morning, they are woefully, horribly late to the party. 

For those who believe in the God Jesus speaks of―the initiator, inspirer, and rewarder of all works of justice―this God is the vineyard owner: offensively full of grace, unimaginably patient, extravagantly welcoming. May those of us who have been working in the vineyard longer than the last couple of hours have eyes that are discerning to see the people who really do genuinely want to join the work, and hearts that are open to welcome them in. 

This vineyard needs all the workers it can get.