Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017

            I used to shuffle cards by dropping them in a heap onto a table and then scrambling them with my hands until I thought they were all moved into some different order. It was not the most accurate of methods. Then my sister taught me how to actually shuffle. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I practiced shuffling for hours. I would sit and watch television after school and shuffle cards over and over. If only I had put as much time into practicing my cello or my piano as I did cards, think where I would be. I thought being able to shuffle made me look cool, and as that was the ultimate goal in life, that’s what I worked for.
            Had my grandmother lived closer to us and known what I was so diligently working toward, she would have been shocked, nay appalled! To her decks of playing cards were “the devil’s hand tools.” That’s a direct quote. My Gramma loved games, and she would play a game called Skipbo for hours. It’s also known as Spite and Malice, and you can play it with a regular old deck of cards. But she would never have played with cards because, again, they were the devil’s hand tools. After all playing cards were the instruments of gamblers. They were the devil’s hand tools.
            Obviously, with that kind of attitude towards cards my parents did not grow up playing Gin Rummy. Nor were they were allowed to dance. They were not allowed to go to movies. My mother’s first big act of rebellion was to sneak off to see a movie when she was 12 on a Sunday afternoon. She saw “The Pride of the Yankees” with Gary Cooper, and she has always told me that she sat there amazed that her parents had kept her from this wonderful world. But she was also such a good child that she immediately went home and confessed to her mother what she had done. Gramma wasn’t sure what she was more upset about – that Mom had gone to a movie or that she had gone to a movie on a Sunday!
            I realize now that to my grandparents, playing cards and movies and dancing, etc. were not just temptations for young people –  pleasures that might lead them astray, they were weeds. They were weeds that would corrupt them; weeds that would rob their soil of its nutrients and block out the full amount of necessary sun. They were weeds, and they must be kept away. If even one weed, a game with cards, started to take root, then it had to be plucked out before it had any chance at growth. No weeds. No way. Weeds are bad.
            It would seem that this parable Jesus told backs up this idea that weeds are bad. He says it pretty plainly. They were sown by the enemy. This is a second kingdom parable following the parable we heard last week about the sower and the seeds.
            The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seeds in a field. But after all the sowing was done, after everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the good seed then slipped away. When the seeds began to shoot up, the weeds were seen along with the wheat. The slaves of master reported this to the householder. They wanted to do something about right away.
            “”Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
            As with any parable Jesus told, there are many points to think about. Again, this is a parable about the kingdom, so it seems that Jesus made it clear that the kingdom was not without opposition. There are enemies to the kingdom. In the explanation Jesus gave to the disciples, he named that enemy as the devil. Along with the naming of the enemy the devil, there is the implication of evil. Evil is real. Speaking of evil, the householder has slaves. The Master owns both property and people. Slavery was and is an institution based in evil. Lastly, this parable definitely seems to promote the idea of an “us versus them” ideology. There is the wheat and there are the weeds.
            One commentator said that the kingdom in Matthew is divisive, not because it wants to pit us one against the other, but because it makes us choose our allegiance. Will we be with God or against God? The problem as I see it is that we more often choose the latter rather than the former.
            It is hard not to take from this parable that there is an us and there is a them. Isn’t that how we structure our lives? Rich versus poor. Democrat versus Republican. Liberal versus Conservative. Mainline versus Evangelical. Denomination versus Non-denomination. Who will win in the end? Who is the wheat and who are the weeds? Well clearly the weeds are the other side. We just need to rip those weeds out and everything will be right again.
            Except in the parable Jesus told, it won’t be all right. The master told the slaves not to pull the weeds. If you pull the weeds, you might uproot the wheat as well. Wait until the harvest. Then they can be separated. Then what has been sown can be sorted.
            Let them grow together, those weeds and that wheat. That’s the answer that the Master gave. That’s the answer that Jesus gave. The kingdom of heaven is like a field where both good seed and weeds grow right alongside one another. No one judges which is which except God.
            All of this is great, except what does this mean for us? When it comes to injustice, is this parable telling us to not just let it grow but let it go? I don’t think so. In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus said that all causes of sin will be pulled up and thrown into the fire. What we sow, we will reap. So it seems to me that we still have to sow the seeds of justice, righteousness, mercy. We’re still called to be peacemakers, to stand up to the powers and principalities, to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus. But it also means that we cannot remove ourselves from what we perceive to be the weeds.
            Living in as many different places as I have, I have seen an interesting phenomena when it comes to home schooling. This is not a diatribe or a criticism for or against it. But when I lived in New York State, I knew several people who home schooled. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, overwhelmingly their reasons for home schooling were religious. These kids were from ultra-conservative families, and they did not like religion not being taught in public schools. They believed that the secular humanities being taught in public schools were a potential corruption for their children. So they pulled their kids out and home schooled them.
When we moved to Iowa, our town had a large home schooling group as well. They were very organized. They got together for special functions and activities. Special teachers were brought in for different subjects and extracurricular activities. But overwhelmingly they were kids from ultra-liberal families. They thought the public schools were too parochial and pushed antiquated, conservative values that forced children into gender specific roles, etc.
            My point is that both sides thought the others were weeds, and their children, their beautiful wheat, needed to be protected from growing alongside them. In reality it was no different than the white flight I saw when I was a kid the minute bussing became a reality. We live in an “us versus them” world. It is easy to interpret Matthew’s Jesus as saying this too. But I think this is a false dichotomy. I do believe there is wheat, and I do believe there are weeds. There is good seed, and there is certainly evil and people who do evil. But we are not called to remove ourselves from them. We need each other. The truth is, I have good seeds and weeds jostling for power within me too. I suspect all of us do.
            So what do we do? We acknowledge the evil without and the evil within. We stand up and call out injustice. We keep praying for the Holy Spirit to work through us, sowing good seed, bringing to fruition its good fruit. And we remember that we don’t see what God sees. We are not called to be judges or to be sin police. We are called to love. We are called to live the gospel, to show compassion and kindness, to offer cups of cold water. We are called to sow seeds, even as we pray to be fertile soil. We are called to love and to live in the world, right alongside those we may believe to be weeds. We are called to remember that we need each other. We need each other. That is the kingdom of heaven.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017

            Let anyone with ears listen!
            I took the Seed Savers Exchange for granted when we lived in Iowa. Seed Savers is the largest seed saving exchange in the country, and probably one of the largest in the world. Their Heritage Farm is on the same road as the elementary school Phoebe and Zach attended. We would drive past it every day going to and from school nine months out of the year.
            But I never thought much about it or about what they did until one or two summers before we moved down here, and my sister had an old college friend visiting her. The friend came to Decorah specifically because she wanted to visit Seed Savers. Seeing Jill, who was spending the summer in Decorah was a happy coincidence. Jill and I went with her friend to Seed Savers, and it was the first time I had the chance to wander around both the farm and the large exchange and store.
            Seed Savers Exchange is what its name suggests. It is a place where heritage seeds are saved and exchanged, and the farm is a living, dynamic example of biodiversity; a diversity that is being threatened if not completely lost with the engineering of seeds for vegetables and flowers. An heirloom tomato is not just a name for a variety of tomato plant. The seeds that created that tomato have been passed down from generation to generation. Diane Ott Whealy, the woman who, with her former husband, started Seed Savers back in the 1970’s was given seeds by her father for the purple morning glories that bloomed every summer on her parent’s front porch. Those seeds, he told her, were brought by her great-grandfather from Bavaria when her family first immigrated to this country. Those seeds were as much an heirloom of her family as any antique piece of furniture. Immigrants would bring seeds with them when they journeyed here. So part of the mission of Seed Savers is not only to preserve and conserve the vast variety of seeds while we still have them, it is also to link seeds to our history. As the informational video on the Seed Savers website states, every seed tells a story.
            Let anyone with ears listen!
            Seeds, the sower and soil are at the heart of our story from Matthew’s gospel. Not only do we have the parable of the sower and the seeds that Jesus shared, we have his explanation about it as well. Biblical scholars speculate that Jesus’ explanation of his parable was actually added later by the gospel writer. In the verses that are skipped, the disciples asked Jesus about why he taught in parables in the first place. We may take Jesus’ use of parables for granted – Jesus told stories to make a point – but it would seem that even the disciples’ wondered why their Rabbi used this particular form of teaching so often. Let’s remember what parables were and for the purpose they were used.
            Parables were not just a story for the story’s sake. Jesus was not trying to offer the crowds a diversion by telling them this parable. Parables were stories that packed a punch. Jesus told them to make a point. That point would have definitely been surprising, and in the case of so many of Jesus’ parables, it would have been shocking as well. His plot twists and unexpected meanings would have offended some who listened to him; while others would have been comforted by them. But regardless of the emotions they brought to the surface of the hearers, Jesus’ parables also made people think. I suspect the people in the crowds gathered around Jesus thought about his parables for a long time – after they had gone home, gone back to their work, or while they were lying in bed at night. The parables Jesus told were not merely for entertainment purposes. They packed a punch.
            So what would have been the shocker in this story? As I was studying this passage, I read a commentary where the author used the illustration of a farmer going out to plant crops. The farmer climbs onto whatever farm implement it is that is used for this purpose, (after all those years in Iowa, I should remember this piece of machinery) but he immediately starts spilling seeds out at the front door of his house. The farmer keeps throwing seeds out without regard for where they are landing his entire trek to the actual fields. Some of the seeds land on the gravel driveway. Some of them land by the side of the road. Some of them actually fall in the field where they are supposed to be, but there is no deliberate planting. The seeds are just tossed out willy nilly.
            You do not have to be a farmer to think that this sounds odd at best. Why would any farmer waste his or her seeds like that? That’s not planting a field, that’s just random seed sending. What would the people in the crowds around Jesus have thought about this sower? Essentially the sower Jesus told about did the same thing. He went out with his seeds, no plan, no crops to plant, and just started throwing those seeds everywhere and anywhere.
            I suspect that those folks listening to Jesus would have thought that this was reckless, wasteful behavior. Seeds were precious. Land for planting was limited. You don’t just recklessly throw your seeds wherever you feel like it. But that’s exactly what this sower did. He sowed his seeds on the path where he walked. He sowed his seeds on rocky ground, where there should not have been the slightest chance of the seed taking root. The sower threw seeds amidst thorns; surely knowing that any plant that grew there would be at risk of being choked by those same thorns. Even the seeds that fell on good soil varied in actual grain production: a hundred, sixty, thirty.
            The sower was a profligate with his seeds. He was wasteful, reckless, careless, extravagant. The sower was not cautious or careful. He just sowed seeds everywhere and anywhere. The shocked and appalled crowds must have wondered what point Jesus was trying to make.
In the explanation Jesus gave to the disciples, he focused on the seeds. The seed is the Word of God, the Word of the kingdom. Someone who hears the Word but does not understand it, well that person is represented by the path. The rocky ground is the person who hears the Word, receives it joyfully, happily, but it does not take root in that person. When trouble comes, the Word is forgotten and the person “falls away.” The thorns are the person who hears the Word, but is too caught up in the cares and woes of the world to fully let it settle in his or her heart. But that good soil? That good soil is the person who hears the Word, understands the Word, believes the Word, and lives the Word.
            Whether or not Jesus offered this explanation at the time, or Matthew added it in later as a help to the congregation who listened to him, what we learn is that the soil is us. There’s nothing wrong with that. Growing up, I was encouraged to be that good soil. But I realize that while there is good soil in me, there are also rocky spots and thorns. The path is never far away. The seeds of the Word are sown in me, and sometimes they take root, but often they are choked out by thorns or rocks or birds snatch them up. I have to persist at being good soil. I have to work at it. It does not just happen. It takes cultivation and ongoing tending on my part.
            This is the explanation Jesus gave to the disciples, but it was not an explanation given to the crowds. The people who listened to Jesus did not hear about the seeds representing the Word of God or the soil as an illustration for their hearts. They heard about a sower, a reckless, extravagant sower who sowed seeds carelessly and heedlessly.
            It seems to me that if the seeds are the Word, and the different soils are us and our hearts, then the sower is God. What does this parable say about God? Even more, what does it say about God and God’s grace? God sows seeds of love and grace and mercy extravagantly, recklessly, flinging them everywhere and anywhere. There is no plan, no map for planting. The seeds are just sown. As far as I can tell, there is no indication that this happens only once but again and again and again.
            God sows the seeds of love, grace, mercy, justice, righteousness, peace over and over, flinging them extravagantly into the world, into us, without caution or consideration. They are sown for any and all. No matter how the thorns or rocks try to choke out God’s Word of love and peace, no matter how my heart is divided between good soil and rocky ground, God sows with reckless abandon. Again and again and again. Thanks be to God!
            Let anyone with ears listen!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Yokes and Burdens

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 9, 2017

            There is dominant theme in the pictures of me as a little girl. In many of them, I am sleeping. You would think that this was because I slept a lot, so therefore my parents were forced to get pictures of me sleeping; after all it was all I ever did. Actually, the opposite is true. I did not sleep. There are pictures of me sleeping just to prove that I did it once in a while. I had colic when I was born, so for my first three months sleep – for my parents and for me – was a luxury. But even after that, I just didn’t sleep as much as other children did. In truth, I did what I still do today. I go and go until I drop. So there is a picture of me at the dinner table with a full plate of food in front of me, and my head is back against the chair and I am out. There is a picture of me sitting on the floor playing with toys, and I’m asleep. I’m not lying down next to the toys. I’m still sitting up. My elbows are resting on my knees and my hands are folded under my head and I am out. I would just go until I dropped.
            As I child I think I did this because I was afraid of missing something. As an adult, I know that I am not. Sleep is precious to me these days, and I don’t do well when I don’t have it. I understand more and more what it means to be weary of body. As I get older, I understand more about what it means to be weary of soul as well. But on Friday night I heard from people who gave new meaning to that soul weariness.
            I’ve just returned from our denomination’s Big Tent Conference in St. Louis. Big Tent is a conference where our different mission and policy agencies come together, and we talk and learn about the challenges facing our churches and God’s world. The theme of this year’s conference was “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” We had profound worship and were taken to CHURCH with the opening sermon by our stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson! The Bible study was thought-provoking and challenging and was led by an OBU graduate, Eric Barreto – who is a Baptist pastor and scholar but didn’t hold our Presbyterianism against us. And on Friday night there was an optional time for engagement with local churches. This was something you signed up to do when you registered. One of the churches hosting folks was First Presbyterian in Ferguson. That’s where I went. My longtime best friend, Ellen, signed up to go there as well. We loaded onto school busses and drove to the church. The church members fed us a great meal, then we went into the sanctuary for a time of questions and discussion. We closed with worship and communion.
            I’m not sure what I expected to see when we pulled into Ferguson. Perhaps a broken down community, perhaps there would still be remnants from the protests that happened in 2014. Instead it was a quiet community. The houses were modest but well-tended. Lawns were mowed. Stores were open. The church building itself wasn’t super impressive on the outside, but someone had done a lot of work on the flowers. It could have been Shawnee. It could have been a neighborhood in Oklahoma City or Nashville or Minneapolis. First Pres Ferguson is a predominantly white congregation. The pastor is white. He had invited another pastor and community leader, an African American woman, to be there as well. Because of the protests, the two had become friends. One of the things that he told us was that when the protests were happening, he was overwhelmed. She echoed him on this statement. She said that even those who shared her skin color, who knew that something like what was happening was a real and present possibility in Ferguson, she was also overwhelmed. They were both weary of body and soul. Weary that an 18-year-old young man was killed by a 26-year-old young man. They were weary with the heartache of that, on both sides, on all sides.
            The pastor asked us what we expected to see when we drove into Ferguson. The church was located right in the middle of the two main streets where the protests were happening. What did we expect to see? He told us some of the history of Ferguson. People in Ferguson believed that a lot of work had been done to bridge the racial divide. There were folks who believed that Ferguson didn’t have racial problems, not ones that would cause real trouble anyway. The pastor told us never to take for granted that what happened in Ferguson couldn’t happen where we live. Ferguson, he said, was a mirror of the American soul.  
            What did you expect to see when you came to Ferguson?
            “What then did you go out to see?”
            The last quote was Jesus. And I’m actually quoting from verses that come before our selected verses today; but when it comes to understanding – the Bible, life or both – context counts.
            At the beginning of this chapter, we read that Jesus concluded his instructions to the disciples. Then he continued on with his ministry to the people, teaching and proclaiming the good news to the cities. John was in prison. Whatever assurance John felt about Jesus before, it would seem his assurance had been replaced with doubts and questions. He sent messengers to Jesus, who asked him,
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus was not offended by this question, but sent them back to John saying,
            “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Jesus was not upset by John’s question. In fact he went on to praise John. He wanted to know what people thought they were getting with John.
            “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
            Did you go out to see someone who looks nice and gentle in soft robes? Did you go out to see a prophet? You got a prophet and you got even more than that.
            Then we come to where our passage begins. Jesus compares the people of this generation, perhaps not so much the crowds but the religious authorities, the folks in the know, in the in-crowd, to children wailing and whining.
            They didn’t like John. John was an ascetic. He was too austere. He dressed strangely and ate strange things. He was too severe. He needed to live a little more, lighten up. He was so strange and so strict, surely he had a demon.
            But they didn’t like Jesus either. Jesus was too much the other way. He was not severe. He was not austere. He was about abundance, but it was with all the wrong people! He ate with drunkards and gluttons. He ate and drank! He shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. One commentator wrote that it was like a theological Goldilocks. John was too hard. Jesus was too soft. But if John pointed to the One who was to come in the name of God, and Jesus was the Incarnation of God, revealing God’s presence, proclaiming God’s kingdom, then what does that say about the people? Who did they want God to be? Why could they not recognize God when God was right there in their midst?
            In the verses that the lectionary skips, Jesus made “Woe to you,” statements. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Jesus pronounced woe on cities where his deeds of power had been done, but still they did not recognize him for who he was. Still they did not recognize God in their midst. You would think from Jesus proclaiming these statements of woe, that these cities must have been horrible and of ill-repute. But according to biblical scholars, these were not cities that were huge and wicked. They were just regular places filled with regular people trying to get on with their lives. Yet Jesus pronounced woe on them because they could not recognize God in their midst. They could not or they would not.
            Getting back to where our verses start again, Jesus gave thanks that God revealed God’s wisdom not to the folks who were supposedly wise and intelligent, but to the infants. I imagine that Jesus included literal children in this, but I also think that he was referring to the ones he spoke of in the Sermon the Mount: the meek, the poor, the mournful. The infants were also the ones he would speak about in Matthew 25, the least of these.
            And then, after all of this, after his frustration with the people for not recognizing God in their midst, for criticizing John for one thing and complaining about him for another; after his pronouncements of woe to the cities where his works of power had been done; after all of this, we come to some of the most beautiful, the most gracious words in Matthew’s gospel, perhaps in all of scripture.
            “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
            Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.
            In a world that persisted in not recognizing God in their midst, Jesus said,
“Come to me.”
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
What would it mean to give our burdens to Jesus? To take his kind, unchafing yoke upon us? What would it mean to actually recognize what it is that burdens us? Is it my worries about finances or housework that burdens me God, or is it my pride? Do I carry a hatred or a prejudice inside me that I need to lay down? Do I contribute and silently endorse systems of oppression that I don’t want to believe or acknowledge? Is that a burden I don’t even know I carry?
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
How are we weary? What burdens do we carry? What assumptions, like the people of Ferguson, Missouri, do we take for granted? What is wearying our souls? Not just my soul and your soul and your soul, but the soul of communities, our country? Now more than ever, Jesus needs us to proclaim the message of good news, of grace, of our God who says,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
            Come to me.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Cold Water

Matthew 10:40-42
July 2, 2017

            Usually the word “cacophony” is reserved for sounds, something audible. Its definition is “a harsh, discordant mix of sounds.” But if I could borrow the word cacophony to describe a place, I would use it to describe Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Wall Drug is this rambling, meandering souvenir filled, tourist crowded behemoth of a place. The summer we visited, I saw every kind of person. It was later in July so there were bikers headed to the big Harley motorcycle rally in Sturgis. There were retirees taking a break from seeing the country in their RV’s. There were young families on their summer vacations. There were tourists from other countries, who I suspect – and I fear – believed that this was a good representation of American life. Many of the people who were there had come to Wall Drug specifically to see Wall Drug. Others were there as a side trip either on their way to or from Badlands National Park.
            As I understand it that is how Wall Drug became what it is today. Wall is a first stop outside of the Badlands. The Badlands are beautiful and wild and desolate and magnificent. In the summer, those beautiful, wild, desolate and magnificent Badlands can also get hot and dusty. When visitors were first making treks out to see the Badlands, the folks who started Wall Drug would greet them on their return with cold cups of water. This attracted people to the store itself, and over the years it grew into the cacophony it is today. You can buy a million and one things at Wall Drug, most you probably don’t need, but even now the one thing you can get free at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota is a cold cup of water.
            I realize that Jesus was not telling the disciples about cold water as a way to attract others. This was not an evangelism scheme. This was not a lesson in church building or attracting young families to the pews. Jesus was talking to the disciples about hospitality, about welcome.
            Our passage today comes at the end of instructions to the disciples. Jesus has told the disciples about what they will face when they go out amongst the people. He has warned them and encouraged them. He has given them some insight as to what it means to be a disciple – the good and the bad. Jesus has instructed them about why he has come. He has made it clear the life of a disciple will not be easy, it will require sacrifice and hardship and separation from loved ones.
            But then we come to these last verses in chapter ten. The heading in my Bible is “Rewards.”
            “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
            It would seem that the reward the disciples were promised was the reward of eternal life in heaven. It was the reward of the righteous. I don’t have a problem with this reward. But I’m struggling. I’m not struggling with the idea of my reward being life eternal or life in the kingdom, but is that the only reason why we do what we do? Do we welcome others so we secure our reward sometime later on?
            Let’s come back to that question. Another story I read once was about a church that started a cold water ministry. Not us, although I consider it serendipitous that we have started that kind of ministry in the last weeks just as this passage appeared in the lectionary. No, this was a church in Atlanta. They were a small, struggling church, and they happened to be on a main route where parades happened. A Gay Pride parade was scheduled and it was going to go right past the church. The folks in this church were as divided on this issue as any other. But they knew it was going to be a hot day, and whether or not they supported the reason for the parade, they wanted to offer some relief from the heat. So they set up a table and they offered the marchers cups of cold water. That’s all they did. The marchers appreciated it. They felt welcomed. Some of them felt so welcomed that they decided to visit that church. The church members continued to make them feel welcome, and because of this cold water ministry, the church grew.
            Did this church offer cold water because of a potential reward or did they do it because they knew people would be thirsty? Did they do it because they wanted to evangelize or because they just felt like Jesus would have offered a cup of cold water?
            Why do we do what we do? Is it for a reward or is just because? When I first started working on this sermon I thought that I was going to talk about the reality that all of us are sent. And we are. We are all sent out there, into God’s world. Some of us may be sent to do big things, big ministries, big missions. But some of us are sent to do small things. Maybe to us they seem insignificant. It’s just a cup of cold water. But if you’ve ever been thirsty, I mean really, really thirsty, you know that a cup of cold water can make all the difference.
            But I think we have to remember that our reason for doing what we do – big or small – is not necessarily for our reward. Yes, rewards are wonderful. If what I do furthers the kingdom for all of us, then what a wonderful reward that will be. But Jesus sent the disciples out, not for what it would bring them in the long run, but for what it would do for God’s children right then.
            Perhaps I am heretical for saying this, and if I am so be it, but it seems to me that compassion now is equally important as salvation later. Giving a thirsty person a cup of cold water is compassion now. It is a small thing to be sure, but it is a ministry nonetheless. It is offering someone welcome. It is showing another child of God hospitality. Isn’t that what we are sent to do? Out there? Jesus sent the disciples out to do great things: to heal the sick, the exorcise demons, to raise the dead, to reveal God’s love and to further God’s kingdom. Jesus sent the disciples out to do all this in his name. Jesus sent the disciples out to make others welcome and to be welcomed, to help and to be helped. Jesus sends us out to do the same. Giving even a small cup of cold water can be a large gesture of welcome to someone. Giving even a small cup of cold water can reveal the presence of Christ in our midst. Giving even a small cup of cold water can widen God’s kingdom. Isn’t that our greatest reward?

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:23
June 18, 2017

            Harassed and helpless.
Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
The villages and the cities were filled with all of these. People pushed and pulled by life and circumstance. People sick and getting sicker. People surviving but only just. People loving their children and children loving their parents. People working hard, trying to care for their families. People trying to make it, just make it, without harming others and without bringing harm on themselves.
Keeping their heads down.
Hands to the plows.
Noses to the grindstones.
But still the world or life or existence plays by its own rules. People get sick and sicker. People are pushed and pulled. Hard work doesn’t always take care of a family. Love is not always returned.
People are harassed and helpless. Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried. Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
Jesus saw this. He saw this in every village and in every city that he visited. He saw the people, harassed and helpless, and he had compassion for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.
How many of you are feeling harassed and helpless today? How many of you are here just trying to hang on from whatever storms are buffeting you beyond these doors? I feel that way. I feel harassed and helpless. From the valleys of daily living, from personal circumstances, but even more by the circumstances of our world.
Two mass shootings this week, and I’m sure there were more that I have not seen reported. A terrible, horrific fire in London; a city which has already endured a terrorist attack along with the terrorist attack in Manchester a few weeks ago. The anguish so many are feeling over the acquittal in the Philando Castile case in St. Paul. So many people hurting. So many people angry. So many people sick and getting sicker. I cannot seem to shake this feeling of being harassed and helpless, hapless and hopeless. From city crowds to small towns, it seems as though we are sheep without a shepherd. My heart cries out, “We could use some compassion, Jesus. We could use a shepherd.”
But Jesus did not only feel compassion for the people, so harassed and helpless, so hapless and hopeless, harried and hurried. He acted on his compassion. He was God’s hands and heart and arms and feet and mouth and mind. But even the Good Shepherd could not shepherd so many. He told the disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The disciples were his laborers. Although this took place before the Great Commission that we read last week, this is all part and parcel of what the disciples were called to do at this moment and in the future. Later on in this passage, the disciples were given specific directions to:
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’”
There is much more to this passage than I am focusing on, more that should be contemplated. But for this morning, I have narrowed it to these beginning verses. Jesus called the disciples to labor, but the labor did not end with them. Each generation has called new laborers. We are descendents of those disciples, and we are inheritors of the call. I cannot claim that I have ever managed to do anything that Jesus commanded, other than proclaim the good news about the kingdom coming near. I’m not sure I’ve even done that all that well. I certainly have not cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the lepers or cast out demons.
Have you?
But that does not mean that we are not still called to labor, to go into that plentiful harvest. We are called as the disciples were called to shepherd the harassed and the helpless, even as we are also harassed and helpless.
Here is the funny thing about following Jesus’ call to be a laborer, to shepherd the lost sheep. When we reach out with compassion, even as we need compassion, miracles do happen. You can be dead in spirit and dead in your soul and yet your body lives on. But someone showing compassion, someone reaching out to you – another harassed and helpless person offering a hand – might give you new hope and new purpose. Isn’t that raising someone from the dead?
Every week, every day we pray for people who are sick. Sometimes they become well. Sometimes they don’t. But compassion can change a heart. It can open up the way to reconciliation. It can heal old hurts and provide a balm to wounds that run deep, or soften invisible scars.
What about those lepers? Lepers were not only diseased. They were outcast. They were segregated and separated from the community. Who are the lepers who need to be cleansed? Who are the unclean in our midst? Are they the mentally ill, the homeless, the out of work and out of luck? Are they the ones ignored by society? Is a leper the least of these that Jesus spoke of, the ones who are oppressed or forgotten? How can our compassion cleanse them? How can our compassion bring them back into community, into relationship? How can our compassion bring them home?
            And what do we do with this talk of demons? Does Jesus call us to perform exorcisms or is it more about giving people space to and permission to acknowledge and confront the demons that possess them? What possesses you? Is it anger? Envy? Fear? I may not believe in demons in the way they were believed in Jesus’ context. But I know this, depression is a demon. Anxiety is a demon. They are cruel demons that can cripple. But showing compassion, offering compassion, being compassionate can help to drive those demons out.
            At one time or another, all of us feel:
            Harassed and helpless.
            Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
We are like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus looked at those people and he had compassion for them. He looks at us and has compassion for us. He acted on his compassion. He called the disciples to do the same.
So we are also called: to be his discples, to be his laborers, to go into a plentiful harvest, with compassion and with love.

Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Honest Failure

            I recently watched a TED talk given by one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. She made a statement, and I paraphrase, “Think about how crappy you’ll feel if you don’t write what tugs at your heart.”

            I don’t want to feel crappy, not about that anyway. So here is one of the many things that has been tugging at my heart. When it comes to ministry, I am a failure. No, I am not stating that to gain your sympathy or empathy or make you argue with me. I am not looking for feedback or pushback. This is not a self-deprecating, feeling sorry for myself kind of piece. Yes, I am discouraged. I am frustrated. I am tired and worn-out and weary and exhausted with the effort of trying everyday. I’m just exhausted at trying not to be a failure, when I know full well that I am.

            I’m serving on a search committee at the Synod level, and our task is to call a new executive to lead the Synod. For those of you unversed in Presbyterianism, the Synod is a mid-council. It is one of the governing bodies between a congregation and the General Assembly. Because I am on this committee, I have been reading PIFs from potential candidates. PIF’s are Professional/Pastoral Information Forms, i.e. resumes for ministry folks. The first question in the narrative section of the PIF asks the candidate to describe a time when they have felt successful or a sense of fulfillment.

            Let me tell you, these candidates seem to have no problem describing their successes. Their accomplishments and achievements are many and wonderful. Non-profits have been built. Faltering organizations have been restructured. Struggling churches have been turned around and brought back from the brink. Budgets have changed colors from red to black. Loving, well-organized teams have been created out of disparate individuals. And it would seem that the kingdom has been furthered through every action taken, every decision made.

            I’m not mocking these candidates. Their achievements are real. But when I think about how I would answer this question, I cannot come up with those same kinds of answers. In fact, I wish that there were a question that asked about our failures. I think a question like that might allow a candidate to be more honest. At least it would allow me to be more honest. When it comes to my belief that I am a failure in ministry, I am not writing this on an impulse. I have been struggling with this for a long, long time.

            To say that I am a failure in ministry does not mean that I don’t have strengths. I do. I know them. I am a good preacher. I have my down days and my off days, absolutely. Not every sermon I have ever preached has been golden, but when I am good, I am very, very good. My sermons challenge, and they make you think. Sometimes they make you feel warm and fuzzy; yet other times they might make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. I’m okay with that. The gospel makes you squirm. It makes me squirm too.

            I am good at sitting with people who are dying. I am good with children. I am good at teaching. I am good at listening. If you are wrestling with your faith, with doubt; if you feel lost and alone in a wilderness, then talk to me, because I have felt the same way. I am good at irreverence. I am good at holding your hand and not saying anything, just being there.

            But I am not good at “growing a church.” I am not good at evangelism. I am not good at drawing in new members. I am not good at starting new programs and seeing them take off. I am not good at filling the seats at worship. I am not good at contemporary worship. I am not good at making people feel self-satisfied and content with where they are in their faith. I am not good at making faith easy. It isn’t easy. At least it isn’t easy for me. I wish it were.

I see others whose faith seems to hinge on Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about being “born again.” They seem to just know exactly what God wants of them. I realize that is in part because of their more literal reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t interpret scripture literally. But the difference goes deeper than that. My faith does not rest on being born again. My faith turns on Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” What you do to the least of these, you do to me. How do I care for the least of these? How have I missed opportunities to care? How have I failed them? When have I remained silent in the face of injustice when it comes to the least of these instead of speaking truth to power? Faith is not easy when you take seriously Jesus’ words about the least of these.

            I am not good at proclaiming salvation, because to me faith is more about compassion now than salvation later. I am not good at preaching the hell I learned about as a kid, because I think we create our own hell on earth. I am not good at blaming God for the evils and ills we see all around us. I do not believe God allows evil to happen, we do. I am not good at telling people what they want to hear. I am not good at that. I know that not all successful pastors with large and growing churches just say what people want. It is beyond unfair of me to make that generalization. But they seem to know something I don’t. They seem to have some ability or knowledge or skill set that I lack.

            I am good at a lot of things. But the things a church needs to be successful today, the qualities in a pastor that attract others, I don’t seem to have those. I am not looking for pity or reassurance. I just needed to say it. I needed to say that when it comes to successful ministry, I have failed. I fail. Yet like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up the hill, I’ll keep trying. Maybe tomorrow or next week or in 2019 I’ll finally feel like I have ministry all figured out. I’ll be successful, and I won’t be a failure anymore. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Always -- Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
June 11, 2017

            When I was in seminary, I was studying with some friends for a quiz on the gospels for our Bible survey class. We were reading through these last verses in Matthew’s gospel, because it was a sure bet that the Great Commission was going to be a question on the quiz. A fellow student said that whenever she read these last words of Jesus to the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” she just wanted to throw up her arms and cry, “Yay!!!!”
            I understand how she felt because I feel the same. Honestly, if it weren’t for those last words, I think I would dread reading the Great Commission much more than I already do. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dread.
            I guess I could try to explain that by reviewing hundreds of years of church history and examining how this passage has been used to justify colonialism, forced conversions, making them, the other, into our image. I could pounce on Jesus’ use of the word “authority,” and talk about our misuse of authoritarianism and the damage that it has done to so many people in so many places; and the damage that it still does.
            But while I think honest discussions about these topics are vital and important, that’s not where my sense of dread comes from with this passage – at least not at this moment. So often this passage has been interpreted as Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and do what is known in the sales world as “cold call.” I am the worst sales person ever when it comes to making a cold call. This is my technique.
“You wouldn’t want to buy whatever the product is that I’m selling, would you? No? I didn’t think so. Thank you and have a nice day.”
As a new pastor, I served briefly on the nominations committee for the presbytery. I was a disaster, because I felt the same dread asking people I didn’t know to serve on a committee I wasn’t sure about as I did trying to sell strangers a product.
“You wouldn’t be interested in serving on COM would you? No? Okay. Thanks.”
Cold calling for whatever purpose and in whatever circumstance is not my gift, my strength, or my forte. If the Great Commission is a call to hand out tracts door-to-door, that’s fine, but y’all go on ahead. I have to go the bathroom and I’ll catch up with you in a little while. (Psst. I won’t catch up with you. Ever.)
I realize that I am setting myself up for a very tense session meeting after worship, so let me offer another interpretation of these last verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told his remaining followers to go and make more disciples in all the nations of the world. Make them through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey the commandments that he taught. And Jesus told them, before you become too overwhelmed or too daunted by this task, know this, you are not doing this alone.
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Some may hear this and interpret it as going door-to-door with tracts, and that is fine. That is their calling. But it seems to me that while Jesus was very specific about the necessity to make disciples, to make them in every nation and to do so through baptism and teaching, the means was not necessarily spelled out. If we want to understand how to make disciples, perhaps we need to look at how Jesus made disciples.
Yes, much to my introverted soul’s horror, he called strangers. He walked up to fishermen and said,
“Follow me.”
But he also talked to people. He healed them. He sat at table with them. He ate with outcasts and outsiders. He listened to them. He touched the untouchables and he broke the barriers between who was welcome and who was not. He even let children come to him and blessed them – something that other rabbis may not have had time for. Jesus loved people. Jesus created relationships with people. He made God’s love real and visible and tangible to the most broken and hurting. He invited any and all to sit at table with him, and he embodied the truth that love is not a limited, finite resource. The more love is given the more love grows.
Jesus was God’s living, breathing, walking, talking embodiment of love in the world.
Jesus, God’s love in the world, sent the disciples, that ragged, motley crew, out … out into the world to love others, to welcome others, to invite others to the table, to call all of God’s broken and beautiful people to hear the Good News of the gospel, to teach them, to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Bailee. This is the beginning, the first step of her journey of discipleship. When I met with her parents this week, we talked about what it means to baptize babies, and I said that one of the main reasons we do this as Presbyterians is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we realize it or not. This is true for us as babies, children, and as adults. God’s grace works in our lives whether we know it or not.
While I may not always recognize God’s grace in the moment, what I do know is that the times I have experienced God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care most profoundly is through other people. When I have felt the healing hands of Christ, it has been through the hand of someone else holding mine. When I have experienced the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, it has been through the witness of someone else encouraging me, pushing me, and challenging me.
When we make our promises to Bailee and her parents to love and encourage them with our prayers and witness, we are also promising to try and be expressions of God’s love for Bailee in this world. We are promising to help her grow in faith, courage, hope, and love. These are no small promises. They are not lightly made. We make these promises to this beautiful and uniquely wonderful child of God so that she will grow in her own relationship with God, and also that one day she will heed these words in Matthew’s gospel to go out, to welcome others to the table, to make disciples of all nations.
But perhaps most importantly today, what we give to Bailee is the good news that we also remember and joyfully claim for ourselves; no matter what, no matter where we are called, no matter where we are sent, no matter how narrow the way or how rocky the path, Jesus the Christ is with us always to the end of the age. Jesus the Christ is with Bailee and with us always. Always. Always. Yay!

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.