The Value of Change

 

[Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”]

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:1-10, NRSV

One silver coin out of ten, so small and worth so much. The woman careless to lose this small silver fortune. Would I call together friends and neighbors if I’d lost and found something so valuable? Would you?

I wonder what the pharisees and scribes thought of this coin parable, standing in the company of tax collectors and assorted sinners. Losing, seeking, and finding the silver coin wouldn’t be something to tell friends and neighbors – at least have the sense to keep quiet about the whole thing. Such a silly story for a rabbi to tell.

I don’t wonder so much about what the tax collectors and sinners thought of these two lost and found parables. They know they are the lost sheep and the lost coin. But something else must have dawned on everyone there: the lost coin and the wayward sheep were so precious and valuable that a woman and a shepherd risked reputation and life to bring them home.  Jesus claims the angels in heaven break out the cake and party hats to celebrate such a homecoming.

Why? Because the lost aren’t strangers or outsiders; they are the sheep of my flock and the same silver as I am. Perhaps I can only discover and accept such a big, holy truth when it’s wrapped in a parable.

Lost

They say if you get lost in the wild, stay where you are. Wandering around makes it harder to find you, and is likely to land you farther from home rather than closer. But it’s so hard to stay put, lost and doing nothing. Wait anyway. The one who comes loves you and will bring you home.

You may wonder why anyone would come to the rescue when there are ninety-nine who never went astray. Simply put, it’s not a numbers game: the shepherd loves you and wants to bring you home.

And another thing: no matter how many didn’t get lost, home isn’t really home without you. Home comes with you as much as it awaits you.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

Luke 15:1-10, NRSV

Seeds and Soil

The Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-9 (NRSV)

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Daffodil shoots started coming up hours after a few inches of the garden bed emerged from snow and ice. Through a four inch snowfall and freezing cold, they continue to grow and green. There are seven or eight green clumps in that small edge of the bed, even though I only planted four or five bulbs in its whole length a couple years back. Who knows how many others will grow when the rest of bed surfaces? Last year, they filled the bed – beauty in yellow visiting this small piece of soil, yielding so much more than was sown.

It was a different story three years ago, with just a few dozen green leaves and a stray flower or two pushing through a bed lost to grass and weeds before I called this place home. I took a spade to them one August, hoping to find a few bulbs to fill in a bare spot in the garden. I found hundreds; the bulbs were good but the soil wasn’t. All that potential slept within those bulbs until they found good soil.

I couldn’t throw out those hundreds of bulbs, so I planted them in every available spot in my yard – under the lilacs, off the walkway, on the banking – and at the town library. Another hundred or so I gave away. Every Spring, those bulbs that couldn’t grow in poor soil bloom all over my yard; they grow and multiply to grace the library beds; they edge the yards of friends and strangers alike. There must be thousands of them by now. For some digging, soil preparation, and generosity, I’ve had the honor to see the abundance of God.

I think the same is true of me and everyone else. We have been given seeds, talents and gifts that will grow in beauty, honoring God and blessing the world. But they can’t grow just anywhere, and we have to be willing to do some digging and rearranging. What we’ve been given is more than good seed, it’s unearned and beautiful abundance. As Jesus tells us, “let anyone who has ears to hear listen!”

Role Change

The Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-9 (NRSV)

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 

Jesus interprets the story for his disciples and followers…the seed is the word, the good news Jesus offers the world. The part about seed falling on the path refers to the ones who lose the word immediately. The rocky ground is about those who get the good news at first, but only in a shallow sense. When difficulties arise, the word dies within them. The thorns are the the burdens of the world; for some, they are too much, choking out the good seed. But some of the seeds find good soil – people who hear the word, take it into themselves, and live out of its goodness. Faith and grace are multiplied beyond all expectations. (Mark 4:10-20)

It’s a great interpretation, in general and for this particular time, place, and company. So far, sowing the word is what Jesus does; the disciples listen and receive. But not forever. Two chapters from this parable, Jesus will send his followers out into the world, changing who they are in the parable from fertile ground to sower.

I love this parable, but my fondness for it can blind me, keeping it boxed up in one tidy little understanding. I do my best to be fertile soil, to let what is given take root and grow through my thoughts and actions. It’s amazing what can grow. And it’s not just me. I’ve seen so much abundance in the lives of others. From little seeds great crops grow.

Here’s my question about this parable: am I meant to remain the soil? Jesus didn’t let his disciples stay soil. When they were ready, he sent them out to sow, scattering far and wide the good news, two by two. This world needs sowers just as surely as it needs soil. When the time comes, will I let go of fertile soil to become the sower of holy seeds?

The Story of the Persistent Widow

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, ‘ Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:1-8, NRSV

To be honest, parables have never made much sense to me. Even after they are explained, I still do not completely grasp the message. Yet, there is something about this parable of the persistent widow and unjust judge that grabs me…something I understand.

I picture Jesus sitting in a circle with his disciples telling the story of a widow asking a judge for what was rightly hers. The judge did not give the widow the time of day. He did not care about those most vulnerable or about what God thought. Day in and day out the judge went to work, and day in and day out, the widow showed up advocating for her rights. Finally, when the judge could not listen to her another minute longer, he granted what was due her.

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, as corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet.”  The Message (Eugene Peterson)

How I admire the widow! I struggle to find my voice; she consistently spoke up for herself despite her situation. I give up at times when things get too difficult; she remained steadfast and refused to quit. I question my feelings and beliefs; she never changed her mind or thought herself unworthy. She persisted in her action and held on to hope. And in the end, an unlikely judge was just.

“But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on earth when he returns?” The Message

I am grateful for Jesus’ words this Lent. He reminds me what is important: incessant prayer, eternal hope and persistent faith. When I find myself getting discouraged or feeling a bit hopeless and unworthy, I will think of the widow and remember that our God of justice hears me and stands up for me. If such unlikely characters as the judge and the widow could take action, why can’t I?

Offered by Heidi Marcotte, mission adventurer and truth seeker.

Little Prophet, Big Fish

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord…

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up…

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah…Then they said, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so…

He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not…so they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…(Jonah 1-2, excerpts,NRSV)

Being a prophet isn’t easy. There’s no guarantee that people will listen to you; if they do, there’s no guarantee that they won’t kill you. Nineveh was Assyria’s capital city – not exactly the place that a Hebrew prophet wanted to go with a message of doom for foreigners who followed other gods. So Jonah ran away from his job and his Employer, clearly hoping that the prophet who runs away lives to preach another day.

Except Jonah forgot that the sea belongs to God. The sailors weren’t Hebrews, but they were God’s, too. The wind, the rain, even the fish: all God’s. You can’t run from God, because everywhere you can think of, and all the places you can’t, belong to God. A fierce storm, lost cargo, casting lots, a few prayers, and a toss overboard; the ship is safe but Jonah is lost.

Except Jonah forgot about God’s love and sense of humor. Out of the deep and into a fish – the most famous biblical time-out ever. When he’s ready to be who he is and bring God’s message to Nineveh, Jonah lands on dry land. I wonder who was happier: Jonah or the fish?

When I run away from who I am and who God is, I probably won’t get swallowed by a fish. At least I haven’t in the past. But I have found myself in a dark place with plenty of time to rethink my choice. Who’s to say that’s any less humorous or miraculous?

Hearing the Prophetic Truth

You are the Man, 2 Samuel 12:1-7a (8-9, parts)

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb four fold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel…I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom…and if that had been too little, I would have added much more..You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife.)

Indeed, how easy it is to see that speck in the eye of others and miss the 2×4 in my own eye. But how brilliant is Nathan! If he had made the parable too obvious he would undoubtedly have risked the king’s ire or at least raised his defensiveness or generated excuses or denials. But Nathan nailed him! No wiggle room here – “You are the man!” Those prophets were a pain, generally going around telling people what they didn’t want to hear – the truth.

And so I pause to look inside and ask: Am I fortunate enough to have a prophet in my life? Am I open to hearing about my 2×4 or am I too busy finding fault in others? Lent is a good time for me to face honestly what is going on in my life. Not just to beat myself up but to open myself up, be vulnerable, accept the forgiveness I need and move on to Resurrection Day. Anybody care to join me?

Offered by Bill Albritton, companion and sojourner on the road to Jerusalem.

Parable of the Two Sons


“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘ I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.) 
Matthew 21:28-31(32) NRSV

The first son had no intention of doing what his father asked and said so without so much as an “excuse me,” or “sorry, no.” Some time later, he changed his mind and went into the vineyard to do the work his father asked of him.

The second son was just the opposite – a positive reply with a deferential “sir” attached, the very image of respect and courtesy. Quickly, he turned away from making good on his pretty words and whatever work he might have accomplished evaporated into a fog of good intention.

I’ve snapped a rude no to a task then later thought better of it; I’ve said an enthusiastic yes to a request and never followed through. Honest to God, I have. But the staggering truth Jesus shows me in this parable: there’s no such thing as good intentions that don’t lead to action. Sometimes circumstances interfere and I can’t follow through as quickly or directly as I had hoped. In rare cases, I never get out to the vineyard because something beyond my control makes it impossible. But most of the time, if I don’t act, then I didn’t really intend to do the work in the first place. I just hate to admit this to myself or reveal it to others.