Visions of Heaven on Earth – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Matthew 13:44-46

When I was 6 years old, my mom took me with her to Ohio to visit her cousin that she had been close to as a little girl. It was my first experience of traveling by plane. While I don’t remember it with great clarity, my mom loved to tell the story of how when we began to crest the clouds, I turned to her and said with big eyes, “Mom, are we in heaven?” I suppose my vision of heaven was similar to a lot of children whose imaginations saw God sitting in the clouds with angels flying all around. Later in my life, I remember hearing old time Appalachian hymn tunes based on Revelation describing heaven as having streets paved with gold and a river with the water of life running through it. While these visions are dreamy, they actually differ from Jesus’ descriptions.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we see Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven to a crowd who had gathered to hear him teach. In this sermon by a lake, Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus’ descriptions are not about heavenly visions, but rather portray heaven dressed in earthy tones: a field, hidden treasure, and a pearl of great value. Just prior to this passage in Matthew’s gospel we hear other metaphors: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like yeast added to flour for leaven. Instead of describing a fantasy, Jesus is clothing the kingdom of heaven in a way that makes it accessible for his audience. In this way, Jesus says that the kingdom is not distant, but rather, directly in front of their very eyes. Read More

Keep Awake – Br. Luke Ditewig

Br. Luke Ditewig

Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus taught with many parables, stories that catch attention. Ten young women waiting for a wedding party, waiting into the night. Five thought ahead and brought extra oil for their lamps. Five did not. When the groom, presumably escorting the bride, was late, they all fell asleep.[i] When the couple arrived, those who thought ahead used their extra oil. Those without had to go get more oil. Late, they were shut out of the party and told “I do not know you.” Pay attention. Don’t get left out. Don’t be forgotten. Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.

All ten of the young women, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep in the night. Half brought extra oil. It seems like the point is: Be prepared, for you don’t know the timing. Being thoughtful, wise, and planning ahead is being engaged, aware, and alert. Perhaps this is being awake: alert and engaged to God, self, and neighbor for a late parade to the party.

This story comes amid others with a similar theme. The previous story says be at work for the master returns at an unexpected time. [ii] Don’t beat fellow slaves and get drunk. The master will throw that one out. The next story says risk investing whatever amount the master entrusts to you.[iii] Don’t hide the talent you’ve received. The master will throw that one out. Keep awake. Be faithful at work. Be prepared for the best. Invest what you’re given. Be alert and active. Jesus is coming, and you don’t know when.

These stories grab our attention with hard words like the shut door. Some preachers use them to stoke fear. What will happen to you at the end of time? Will you be left behind? Shut out? Thrown out? Stock up on oil, whatever that is, to make sure you get inside, to save yourself.

Over and over through the arc of scripture God says: “Do not be afraid.” God goes to extraordinary lengths to seek and save the lost. Even when it seems too late, God still hears our cries and comes. This parable gives warning but not to fear. It urges to live for the party, not just to plan to attend later, but to live now alert and generous. God’s kingdom, the new way of living, is not a ticket to exit later, but a life of celebrating through sharing now.

In the last part of this chapter, we hear about Jesus coming in glory. [iv] “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.” What? When? “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. And when you didn’t do it them, you didn’t do it to me.” How we live now matters. Be wildly generous like a late groom who parades the bride through every street.[v] Be faithful and give your work your best. Risk using all God has given you for good. Care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Listen for God’s invitations.

How might you be asleep, distracted, absorbed, or afraid? Keep awake for Jesus is coming. You may not know what you need. Ask for help. Make attention your intention and your petition.

I suggest two prayers. First, we will later sing:

Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to Thee, here, Lord abide
Let me Thy inner presence feel
Thy grace and love in me reveal.[vi]

Second, pray the prayer we use in Holy Baptism for yourself:

Heavenly Father, thank you that by water the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on me your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised me to the new life of grace. Sustain me, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give me an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[vii]

Do not be afraid. Live remembering your baptism and dressed for the wedding banquet. Feed. Clothe. Love. Pray. Pray with grateful trust to keep awake.


[i] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p271.

[ii] Matthew 24:45-51

[iii] Matthew 25:14-30

[iv] Matthew 25:31-46

[v] Bailey, p272.

[vi] Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Wessel (1590-1635); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)

[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p308. Thanks to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde for the suggestion to pray it personally.

The Great Dinner – Br. James Koester

Luke 14:15-25

You may have noticed that food and eating play an incredibly important role in Scripture. You can’t get very far reading the Bible before you come upon a story, or a saying, or an image, that somehow involves food or feasting. That’s true beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation. In Genesis we are told that after God created the first human, God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed Adam, where he was to care for the garden, and might eat his fill of everything, except of course the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.[1] Scripture closes with God standing at the door knocking, waiting for us to open so that the Lord may enter and eat with us, and us with God.[2] Between these two passages is a veritable Biblical guide to food and etiquette.

But like so much else in Scripture, food exists, not simply to fill our bellies, although it does. Scripture speaks of food as a sign, a symbol, a sacrament, of something much larger. This is certainly true in Isaiah, where the prophet declares that, Read More

Jesus’ Parables of Life – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We read, “Jesus put before them another parable…” Yet another parable… I can imagine some people in Jesus’ crowds holding their heads and saying under their breath, “Oh dear, another parable…” We know from the Gospel record that Jesus’ reception was mixed: some people followed him, some turned away, some turned him in. I wonder if some of Jesus’ mixed reception was because of his steady stream of parables. Parables are not straight talk. Parables take a lot of work because they must be interpreted by the hearer. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, almost all of Jesus’ teaching is in the form of parables – more than 40 parables – and Jesus’ listeners, then and now, have to ask themselves about each of these parables, “What is this about? What is Jesus’ point?”[i]

The English word “parable” comes from a Greek word which literally means “that which is tossed alongside,” which implies that a parable is a comparison, or an analogy, or an illustration that comes from creation or from occurrences in everyday life. Jesus teaches endlessly by telling parables inspired by very familiar things: a lighted lamp; a sower and soil; wheat and tares; mustard seeds and grains of wheat; fig trees and new wine; sparrows and eagles and mother hens; sheep and shepherds; a wicked judge and a poor widow; an old cloth and a festive garment; a lost coin and a buried treasure; a wedding feast and an impending funeral…  On and on they go. Parables were Jesus’ way. Jesus’ parables literally cover a lot of ground. The point of a parable, or, I’ll say, the pinch of a parable, is that what the parable means is not obvious. A parable is rather elusive. It must be personally recognized, and interpreted, and appropriated by the hearers. We are the hearers, and we have to do the work.[ii] Read More

The Comparable Parable – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

The Blessed Virgin Mary, God-Bearer

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus’ story about the widow and the judge is one of his parables. This is a made-up story Jesus told, which is to say it did not really happen. Except that it did happen. Every day.

Widows were everywhere, and most of them were dirt poor. The Old Testament prophets and the early church continually named the suffering widows because their needs were as great as their numbers. They were as common as chattel, and often treated the same on the streets and in the courts. The Hebrew word referring to a widow literally means “an empty house.” No one home; nowhere to belong. You will know about this emptiness if you have been widowed… or, for that matter, if you have been orphaned from your parents; or separated from people, or places, or things where you belonged… or never belonged; or if you intercede for other people who live with estrangement, poverty and injustice in our suffering world.

Which is why parables are comparable, because they imply a comparison, an analogy, an elaboration, or an illustration.[i]  So how is Jesus’ parable comparable to your own life, or to your life’s concerns? How is this your story? How is Jesus’ parable about the suffering and importunate widow and the jaded judge – the ultimately-converted judge – your story? What does Jesus’ parable invite from you and your own needs, or your concerns for others? The answer is yours.

This parable is surely an invitation to cry out our hearts, and bang on the gates of heaven. Jesus’ parable invites and provokes that. And if God-the-judge seems too intimidating, or too distant, or too much of a male for you to safely cry out your heart, then tell the Blessed Virgin Mary, who seems to have God’s ear.


[i] The New Testament Greek word parabolē, means, literally, “that which is tossed alongside,” implying a comparison, an analogy, an elaboration, or an illustration. From “Biblical Parables” by Fred B. Craddock in Interpretation; Luke (John Knox Press, 1990; pp. 108-110.

Turn Around – Br. Luke Ditewig

Luke 12:54-59

You can interpret a rising cloud to mean rain or a southern wind to mean heat, Jesus says. Why don’t you understand what’s happening right now? Don’t you see what I am doing?

Just before, Jesus said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! … father against son … mother against daughter … mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law … .”[i] Though shocking now, family was everything, more powerful than in our current western context. Jesus invites radical change, creating a new community contrary to familial, social, and cultural norms. Discipleship invites conflict and division.

Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler wrote: “The peacemaking Jesus intends for the disciples invites conflict in every aspect of our lives. Throughout the gospels, Jesus models this in a life of making enemies. The sword of Jesus’ good news is one that pierces natural alliances. Instead of focusing on the family, Jesus draws together those who were separated by ethnic and social hierarchies … .”[ii] God’s kingdom reorders relationships and creates one community where all belong. Read More

Solid Rock – Br. Luke Ditewig

Luke 6:43-49

In the Holy Land, there is much solid rock, whether exposed, under a couple inches or under ten or more feet of soil. To build, one digs down however far it takes to use the foundation of solid rock. People build in the summer when it is dry not raining, yet it is hot. It is very hard work to break through the clay and dig down to solid rock. One may be tempted to skip the harder part, yet a sure foundation is essential to survive the winter floods.[i]

Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” Hearing and doing Jesus’ words take great effort, like digging down through hard clay under hot sun. This parable ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke and another version ends the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.[ii] Jesus ends with a call for necessary, risky, costly action.

What are you hearing from Jesus? What’s the invitation? Take heart. Though not easy, the effort required is wise, good, and will save amid storms that have, are, and will come. Read More

Hearts of Flesh – Br. James Koester

Matthew 13: 18 – 23
I tried this once, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Whether or not we come from farming, or gardening backgrounds, we all read the parable of the sower with certain, modern assumptions about farming techniques. We assume modern, or at least rudimentary equipment that can plough, and till the soil, preparing it for seeding, which is then done carefully, accurately, and evenly. But it’s not as easy as that.

As I discovered in the kitchen garden, soil can be different in one part of the garden, than it is in another. In just a few feet, you can go from sandy, well-drained soil, to another that is full of clay, and so the rain runs off without penetrating the surface. No matter how well you prepare the soil, it takes great skill for a farmer, or gardener, to develop optimum soil conditions over time. And that is even before you sow the seed. Read More

Weeds Among the Wheat – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”

The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15)  Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:

God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.

Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society.  Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people.  His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect. Read More

Lost and Found– Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Luke 15:11-32

Versions of these kinds of complicated family dynamics exist throughout the world – always have, always will – but as for this particular Gospel story, that’s what it is. It’s a made-up story by Jesus about two lost brothers and their father. This is one of Jesus’ parables. As were the two parables that Jesus tells immediately preceding this: about a lost sheep and a lost coin.

Sheep may know they are lost, but they are certainly not repentant. Lost coins are completely clueless. And yet, when either is found, there is rejoicing. The scholar Amy-Jill Levin reminds us that in Jesus’ parable about the brothers and their father, no one has expressed sorrow at having hurt one another. No one has expressed forgiveness.[i]And yet there is rejoicing. Sort of. Two out of three. So what’s Jesus’ point? What’s his point in this trilogy of parables?

Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your offender “gets it.” Don’t wait until you have received an apology. Professor Levin says, “share a cup of coffee; go have lunch.” If creating a banquet for this other person is too much of a stretch, at least keep in mind that’swhere this is headed: a heavenly banquet, where all will be well, and all will be reconciled. In the meantime, if you cannot begin to reconcile, cannot even imagine doing it, know that some day you will, if not in thislife, then the next. In the meantime, don’t be mean. Move away from resentment… a right move which will help prepare the way in your own heart and maybe in the other’s. Jesus reminds us he’s come “to seek and save the lost.”[ii]All of us get lost periodically. Most of us, most of the time, cannot find ourselves without help.


[i]My inspiration is Amy-Jill Levine in her Short Stories by Jesus; The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi  (2014); pp. 25-70.

[ii]Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.