Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Life Together

Matthew 18:15-20
September 10, 2017

            I was told a story about a member of a church I once served. I never met this member. He died long before I came on the scene. But this member was known for letting pastors know exactly what he thought of their sermons, their prayers, their leadership, etc. One Sunday, this gentleman did not like the intercessory prayer the pastor led. It went on too long for the member’s liking. Ask for help, lift up the people in need, get it done, get it over with. Amen. After church, the member drove all over town looking for the pastor to make sure that he told him exactly how much he didn’t like the prayer. I guess the pastor had gone out to eat with his family, so the member finally tracked him down at his home. I don’t know if he knocked on his door or cornered him in his driveway, but he gave him a tongue lashing for the deplorable prayer given that Sunday.
            While the members of the church who shared that story with me thought it was funny, I thought, “I’m really glad I was not the pastor, because that would have reduced me to tears, which probably would have made the guy give me an even harder time.”
            Recently, I also heard a story of a family who left a church here in town supposedly because at a church dinner one member of their family was given a much smaller portion of meat than a member of a rival family. I doubt that this was the real reason for leaving the church. I suspect that there had been a feud brewing for a long, long time between the two families, but that camel must have had a very overloaded back if that was the straw that finally broke it.
            These two stories represent opposite ends of our passage from Matthew. The first is taking your need or desire to confront someone to an unhealthy and, I think, mean extreme. It is one thing to confront someone who has hurt you, or you believe has done something that has harmed or will harm the fellowship of the church. But to hunt the pastor down because you didn’t like the prayer, well call me defensive, but you stand up and do better, then we’ll talk. That felt more like a demonstration of power than an actual confrontation over a conflict. The second is an example of what happens when you don’t deal with conflict; when you let it simmer and fester until it finally blows up over something small and seemingly insignificant. I am always saddened when I hear of churches splintering and splitting over inner turmoil and conflicts, but of the many reasons why a church may break down, may it never be known as the Great Roast Beef Debacle of 2017.
            At first glance this passage from Matthew’s gospel seems to be strictly about the rules and regulations for dealing with conflict in the church. It is often referred to as rules of church discipline, and certainly our own rules of discipline are modeled after Jesus’ words in these verses. Matthew is often seen as the most legalistic of the gospel writers – which is one of the reasons that I tend to struggle with him. It’s not that I don’t want rules and order – I do. But I grow weary of constant legalism.
            But is this actually legalism on Matthew’s part, or is that how it is has been interpreted? It is bracketed on either side by passages that are not legalistic in tone at all. The verses preceding these are about the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost. And the verses following are Peter’s question to Jesus about how often should we forgive someone? Jesus’ answer was an incalculable amount. Forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive.
            So is this legalism that we are dealing with for the sake of legalism, or is it a way to be in relationship with one another for the sake of community? I think it is the latter. Jesus came to bring people into deeper relationship with God and with one another. The kingdom of God was not a far off wonderland – some divine amusement park filled with perfection and utopian delights. The kingdom of God was the true community, the true fellowship of the people of God. So how do we live in fellowship, in relationship, in community with one another?
            I think it is important to note that what is implied here is that Jesus assumed there would be conflict. Nowhere does the text say, “Thou shalt not have conflict, but if you do, if you fail and mess up and have conflict, then here is what you do…”
            We tend to see our conflict as failure. I tend to see conflict as failure. But I don’t think Jesus was saying that to be in conflict was a failure on their part. How they dealt or did not deal with that conflict might constitute failure, the conflict itself came from the fact that they were a community of flawed, finite, limited human beings. Remember when Jesus told Peter that on him he would build his church, gather his community? Peter was a flawed rock to be sure. So it is a good bet that the community on which it was built will also be flawed. Of course it is because we are flawed.
            Conflict is inevitable. That’s what I feel is implied here. But how you deal with conflict can make a difference. How do we deal with conflict? How do we deal with someone we believe has sinned against us? Do we confront the person? Or do we take it to the parking lot? Or to lunch after church? My finger is not pointed outward with these questions; it is pointed firmly at me.
            The truth is, it is much easier to take conflict to the parking lot or to lunch or to Facebook or Twitter or an email or some other method or means. It is much easier to not deal with it, let it go, try to forget about it. But then someone gets a larger serving of roast beef, and a family leaves the church. Conflict resolution is not easy, but the method Jesus offered was a way of dealing with it, of facing it and resolving it that kept the community intact.
            But what if the steps that he laid out it didn’t work? Then we treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile. We shun them. That is how this command has been interpreted. Yet, to read against the text, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? Did he shun them? Did he make them even more outcast than they already were? Or did he continue to reach out to them? Did he continue to offer them fellowship, love, acceptance?
            Just as taking conflict to the parking lot is easier than dealing with it directly, so is shunning easier than trying to offer an extended hand to someone who has hurt you. It seems to me that the conflict resolution steps Jesus offered were hard from beginning to end. And while we may see them as step 1, step 2, step 3, etc., when you are dealing with human beings, lines get blurred. Relationships are messy. Communities are messy. Perhaps Jesus was offering a warning about what we loose and what we bind. We have power, and we can use that power with love or we can abuse it. As one commentator wrote, be careful what you set in stone on earth because that can have cosmic consequences.
            Being in community, in fellowship with one another is a messy reality. I took my title for my sermon from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book of the same name. In that book, he discusses what true Christian fellowship is. I have only begun to read the book, and I cannot claim to fully understand every point he made, but he wrote about being disillusioned with one another. True fellowship happens when we reach the point of disillusionment. It seems to me that when we are disillusioned with each other, the blinders are off. We see each other as we really are – flaws, foibles, frailties and also blessed with wonderful gifts and abilities. True community, true fellowship happens when the blinders come off; when we see each other for who we really are – sinners yes, but also children of God.
            I think Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that true community was hard, but it was worth it. I think Jesus wants us to know that as well. It is hard, it is messy, it is worth it. As we move forward together, may we move forward disillusioned with one another, aware of the messiness between us, ready to confront our conflicts, face our challenges and rejoice in our life together. And may roast beef never come between us.

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Failure of Imagination

Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017

            A disaster happens. Something unforeseen occurs. Even though every conceivable precaution has been taken, every known safeguard has been put in place, and every potential error and pitfall has been thought about, something goes wrong. Disaster strikes. Lives are lost. In the fallout, in the aftermath, when people are trying to understand why the tragedy happened, why the crisis occurred, someone says, “It was a failure of imagination.”
            These words were spoken in the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon,” about NASA and putting a man on the moon. I believe it was after the fire in the capsule that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. With everything the NASA engineers, scientists and controllers considered, they had not considered what would cause that fire. It was a failure of imagination.
            That same phrase has also been used to describe September 11, 2001. It is hard to believe that 16 years have passed since that terrible day in 2001. But I remember in the aftermath and the fallout of the days that followed, when the whole country was in shock and grief, that there were people who said it was a failure of imagination that brought us to that point. We just could not imagine that something of that scope, that devastating magnitude would take place. It was a failure of imagination.
            I’m not sure if Peter failed at imagination, but he certainly showed a lack of it. Last week we read the verses immediately preceding these. Peter answers Jesus’ question about who Jesus is with,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And for that correct answer Jesus rewarded Peter with these words,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
In the verses we read this morning, from that moment on Jesus began to tell the disciples what it meant for him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It meant suffering at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. It meant being killed, and being dead for three days. But on the third day, it meant being raised.
Peter heard this and was appalled. He pulled Jesus off to the side and rebuked Jesus, saying,
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
But Jesus turned away from him. He didn’t thank Peter for caring. He didn’t reassure Peter that it would all be okay. He rebuked Peter.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Get behind me, Satan? Satan? Peter has gone from being the rock, the foundation of the community of the faithful Jesus would build to a stumbling block. The Greek translated as “stumbling block” can also be translated as “scandal”. Peter’s words to Jesus were scandalous. Our ears hear the word “scandal,” as something lurid, but a scandal can also be something that causes others to fall away in their faith. So Peter’s words were indeed a stumbling block. He was, unwittingly, trying to pull Jesus away from Jesus’ divine purpose. From building rock to stumbling block, Jesus’ words must have devastated Peter. I picked the picture on the front of the bulletin because I thought it represented how Peter must have felt hearing them. Jesus’ back is to Peter with his hand pointing at him accusingly. Peter is on his knees, head bowed down in shame, hands up in a pleading gesture. I feel sorry for Peter. I know he was wrong to say what he said. But I don’t think he could imagine what Jesus was truly going to do. Even though he got it right when he confessed Jesus’ true identity, I think Peter had a failure of imagination when it came to understanding what that identity meant.
It’s commonly believed that Peter and the other disciples – and probably many people who felt compelled to follow Jesus – thought that he was a Messiah of the warrior/ heroic/kick butt variety. As Dr. David Lose wrote, if Jesus were that kind of Messiah, that warrior/savior, he would overthrow the violent Roman occupation with violence only to eventually be violently overthrown by someone else. The wheel of violence would just roll on and on. Jesus knew this. He knew that the only way to truly disrupt the wheel of violence was to allow himself to be crushed underneath it. He knew that he was not a Messiah in the worldly and earthly understanding. He was a Messiah who would not overthrow, but transform. He would not convert one form of violence into another; he would break through that violence – even if it meant that sacrificing himself to the violence. 
But Peter did not understand that. Peter could not imagine that. Peter could not see or envision anything beyond what he already knew – not yet anyway. It seems to me that when he rebuked Jesus, it was not so much out of anger or out of arrogance, it was out of fear. We are unable to hear tone or expression in the words we read, but imagine if you will Peter’s words sounding something like this, like someone who is in agony at what their beloved Rabbi is saying.
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
As in, “Please Jesus, don’t say such things. Please don’t talk about your suffering and dying. I cannot bear to hear it. I cannot bear to think about it. I cannot bear to imagine it. It hurts too much.”
A failure of imagination; Peter could not bear to imagine the painful truths Jesus spoke. But beyond that, Peter and the other disciples could not imagine the reality that those truths would bring. That was the struggle for them every moment, every day they spent with Jesus. They could not imagine the reality of the kingdom Jesus spoke of. They could not imagine the reality of the world that could be when humans lived completely for God and for one another. They could not imagine true and perfect love, true and perfect peace. They could not imagine it until the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them – then their imaginations were given free rein.
True, even after the Holy Spirit came upon them, the disciples/apostles were limited in their imaginations. So are we, but with the power of the Spirit they had a bigger view of what the world could be, should be.
I think that we, the church, have been given that gift, that empowering of the Holy Spirit. I think we have been given the ability to imagine more than what we can see. We can imagine a world where we live completely for God and for one another. It’s funny; it is often in a crisis, in the aftermath of a failure of imagination, when we have those times, when those kingdom of God moments are truly visible. They were clear and visible on September 11th. People stopped worrying about themselves and cared for each other. It is clear and visible in Houston right now, when you see images of ordinary folks rescuing other ordinary folks – not because they have to but because it is what you do for another human being. You see it in the video of people making a human chain to rescue an elderly man from his car that was swamped in water. How wonderful would our world be if we were intentional not only about imagining the kingdom of God, but working for it, not only when there is a crisis or a tragedy, but everyday? How wonderful would our world be if we put our imaginations to work envisioning peace – true, abiding peace, the peace of God, the shalom of the kingdom, and then we put aside our differences and worked to make it a reality? How wonderful would our world be if we imagined living in the peace of Christ and then worked to make it true?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Image result for Matthew 16:21-28
"Get behind me, Satan!" Matthew 16:23

On This Rock

Matthew 16:13-20
August 27, 2017

            I talk with my hands. One day in college, one of my friends came up behind me to see if I wanted to go have coffee. She told me that she saw me across the quad – which was a good sized piece of lawn. She knew it was me even at a distance because I was talking to someone and gesturing all over the place. I don’t know why I do that. It doesn’t seem like other people in my family use their hands to talk as much as I do. I wonder about it, which is why I was so excited when my uncle Dudley, my mom’s older brother had his DNA tested. I have REALLY wanted to do this ever since I first started reading about these tests! It could explain so much. I grew up knowing that I was Swedish on my mother’s side and German on my dad’s. But it turns out that I am not just Swedish; I am also Finnish and Russian, a soupcon of United Kingdom, a dash of general Scandinavian and a smidgeon of Western European – whatever that means. If my mom’s DNA is more diverse than we could have possibly imagined who knows how diverse my dad’s DNA might be? Perhaps Italian? Perhaps there’s a genetic component to my gesturing? You never know.
            Why do I really want to know about my DNA? Probably for the same reason I have always been curious about my genealogy, and genograms and why I have taken the Meyers Briggs personality traits and preference test multiple times. I want to understand myself. I want to understand my family of origin. I want to know where I come from and who I come from. I want to know a little bit better who I am.
            Although the first chapter in Matthew’s gospel is not referenced here, I think it is important to remember what it contains. Matthew did not begin his story of Jesus by immediately sharing a birth narrative. He began with a genealogy. This was where Jesus came from through his father, Joseph. This was Jesus’ line, his ancestors, his history. For Matthew, telling his audience who Jesus was related to, who he was descended from, was also his way of setting the stage for telling them who he was. It was both a clue to Jesus’ identity and a justification for his identity. Not only was Jesus of divine origin, his human self could also be traced back through God’s chosen people as well: from Joseph to Abraham. His identity as the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Messiah both fully human and fully divine was firmly established. Matthew’s genealogy was a claim about Jesus’ identity.
            Now we come to this particular moment in the gospel. Jesus and the disciples have come into the district of Caesarea Philippi – the district of Caesar, the Empire – and Jesus asked them a question.
            “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
            The disciples did not hesitate in their responses.
            “Some say, John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
            Jesus did not let the question drop though.
            “But who do you say that I am?”
            In that moment Simon Peter made his famous confession of faith.
            “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
            In Mark’s gospel, the only other gospel that records this particular moment between Jesus and the disciples, Jesus responded to Peter by telling the disciples what being a Messiah meant – suffering and death. We will get to that part of the story next Sunday. But Matthew gave his listeners, his readers a pause. Jesus responded to Peter with affirmation.
            “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
            Then the moment ended with the Messianic secret: don’t tell anyone what I’ve told you.
            For a moment, Peter got it right. Not only did he get it right, Jesus told him that on him – the rock – his church, the ecclesia – the community will be built. And Peter will hold the keys to the kingdom. Surely it is from this passage that we get our image of St. Peter as the gatekeeper to heaven. And is this not the passage that informs Roman Catholicism’s understanding of Peter as the first in line of succession for the leadership of the church?
            Peter. Petra. The rock. The foundation of the church. The basis of the community of disciples, the followers of the Way, the followers of the Christ. All this because in this moment Peter got it right. But if you know anything about what follows – and I don’t want to get ahead of myself – Peter does not always get it right. Not only will he get it wrong in the next verses that we read next week, but he will deny Jesus three times. In Acts, even after the power of the Holy Spirit has descended upon him, Peter will struggle with the vision he has from God about what is clean and what is unclean. Peter might be the rock upon which Jesus built his church, his gathering of disciples, but he was a flawed rock to be sure.
            But what was it that Peter said that was correct? When Jesus asked, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
            The Living God; not a static, frozen deity; not a statue or an idol; the Messiah is a living God. Jesus told Peter that his answer, his correct answer, in fact came from God. It was revealed to Peter by God. That living God was very much alive and well and working in Peter in that moment. And because God was working in Peter, the church would be built on him. Yes, Peter was flawed. Yes, just as Peter got it really, really right, Peter was also going to get it really, really wrong. But the living God was not deterred by Peter’s flaws. The living God worked in and through Peter regardless. And a church would be built on that rock; that flawed but faithful rock.
            Peter was flawed, but when it came to understanding Jesus, albeit imperfectly, he experienced him as the Son of the Living God. He saw Jesus, even if just for a moment as who he truly was and is.
Who do you say that I am?
It seems to me that this is a question Jesus asks us as well. I don’t think this is a question that we are asked once, but over and over again. Because our God is a living God, we experience God and encounter God in so many different ways and settings. God meets us where we are.
Yet, we are not asked this question of identity just as individual believers. Aren’t we also asked that as the church? We have been asking ourselves the question, “Who are we as a congregation,” for the past two years and more. But perhaps what has really been happening is that through that question Jesus has been asking us, “Who do you say that I am?” Because the truth is, our identity as a congregation, as a church is not separate from our answer to that question. Our identity as a congregation is inextricably tied to our answer to that question. It is the basis of our spiritual DNA. It is the rock upon which we are built. How we answer matters. How we live based on that answer matters.
I don’t think that Peter was given the keys to the kingdom so that he could be a gatekeeper for eternity. I think that Jesus wanted Peter and the other disciples to understand that what we do on earth, what we do now, has an impact here and in heaven. What we do now affects the kingdom of heaven which is in our midst. This is not limited to that which is large and grand. Small acts of love, kindness, compassion reverberate through earth and through heaven. It seems to me that is what Jesus meant when he said what will be loosed will be loosed and what will be bound will be bound. Believing in the Living God means that our faith is also alive. It grows. It changes. It expands.
Jesus built his church, gathered his community, called together his followers on a rock of a man who was flawed, who would fail, who would misunderstand. But still he built. Still he gathered. Still he called. Our good news is that Jesus is still building his church, Jesus is still gathering his community, and Jesus is still calling together his followers. We are flawed, but through the grace of God, our faith continues to live. We are still asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And the Living God still works through us, opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to the answer,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Undeterred

Matthew 15:10-28
August 20, 2017

            How do we learn? I don’t have a specific answer in mind when I ask that question; I’m just putting it out there. How do we learn? Are you a visual learner? Do you understand more by seeing how something works rather than hearing about it or reading about it? Do you learn by doing? Or can you pick up an instruction manual, read through it, then go and repair a small engine? Some people can. I’m not sure how to classify my learning style; it may be a combination of all of the above, except for the repairing of the small engine, although you never know. But when I ask this question, it isn’t just about learning skills; I’m also asking how do we learn about the world, about life, about people?
            One of my favorite movies from the 1980’s was “War Games,” starring a very young Matthew Broderick. He played an underachieving, high school genius, computer geek before any of the rest of us realized what computers were going to mean for our lives. With the help of some other computer friends, he hacked into the military thinking he was going to play some cool new war simulation games.
            Well they were war simulation games, but the main computer thought they were real. The computer, known as Joshua, thought that attacks were being launched; and to make a long story short, it had to learn what the real outcome of nuclear war would be before it started an actual nuclear war.
            This movie came out in the latter days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It spoke to the greatest fear of my childhood, and probably to the greatest fear of my older sister and brother’s generation as well: nuclear war. Two weeks ago, when the tension and rhetoric with North Korea was blisteringly high, I thought about this movie. Spoiler alert: Joshua the computer does indeed learn and stops the launch of a full-out nuclear war at the last, most dramatic, moment. The computer’s last words of the movie are:
            “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
            So the computer, Joshua, learned. We know that we learn, or are at least capable of learning. So here is my fundamental question: did Jesus learn? Did Jesus learn something from the Canaanite woman?
            This is a hard question for many of us, because it smacks up against our understanding of who Jesus was. But we claim that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, so if Jesus was fully human, does that mean that there were things Jesus needed to learn?
           Our passage starts with an explanation from Jesus about what really defiles. All we hear are his words to the crowds, but they were spoken after a confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes. The religious folks were upset that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the ritual hand washing before they ate that purity laws demanded. We wash our hands before we eat for the sake of hygiene. Observant Jews, however, performed hand washing and other ritual cleansing for the sake of those purity laws. To not perform the ritual washing was to be unclean; to be unclean, or to be defiled was to be separated from God.
            Jesus turned their argument back on them. He called them hypocrites. He lifted up words from the prophet Isaiah,
            “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
            Now we catch up to our passage. Calling the crowds around him, Jesus told them about what really defiles. It is not what goes into your mouth. It is what comes out of your mouth. Because what comes out of your mouth comes from what is in your heart. That is where you find defilement or cleanliness. Is your heart defiled? Is it unclean? Or is it close to God?
All of this is great. I’m cheering Jesus on with every word. But then he left that crowd and that place, and he and the disciples traveled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was a Gentile region. There a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, approached him, shouting at him,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
We expect people to come shouting after Jesus, calling after him, touching the hem of his robe. But we don’t expect what happened next – nothing. Nothing happened. Jesus ignored the woman. He said nothing to her, just continued on as though she had not spoken or approached him at all. The disciples could not ignore her. They urged him to send her away. She was a bothersome woman who kept shouting at them, and she was getting more annoying by the minute.
 Jesus spoke then, but his answer, although directed at the woman, was actually spoken to the disciples.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But this Canaanite woman, this mother of a sick child, was undeterred. She knelt before Jesus, which in the Greek context would have been seen as an act of worship, and said,
“Lord, help me.”
The Jesus we think we know would have relented at that moment. He would have shown her the same compassion he showed the crowds. He addressed her at last, but what he said hurts to hear. Jesus told the woman,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This woman, this Canaanite woman, this mother with a sick child, was undeterred. She did not slink away crushed and broken. If Jesus’ words hurt her, we do not glean that information from the text. Instead, what she did next was powerful. She turned Jesus’ words back on him.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 
It was a bold statement for anyone to make, but it was especially bold for a Gentile woman, a Canaanite woman, to make to a Jewish rabbi. But this was a mother with a sick child, and she was undeterred. Jesus heard her. Not only did he hear her, he rewarded her persistence. Her faith, Jesus declared, was great! Her desire was granted. The woman’s daughter was healed instantly.
Sure it’s a happy ending. The woman got what she wanted. But why did Jesus respond the way he did? It seems especially ironic after his teaching about a person’s heart and what really defiles. If what is in our heart defiles us than is this what was in Jesus’ heart? Did Jesus’ heart hold racism? Sexism? The woman had to convince Jesus to help her daughter. What was in Jesus’ heart?
            There are many theories as to what Jesus was trying to do with his response to this woman. One is that the story would not have sounded as harsh to the original hearers as it does to our modern ears. Perhaps the saying about the children and the dogs was from an ancient proverb; one that would not have been offensive to the people living in the time of Jesus.  Maybe Jesus was using the word for dog affectionately, as if he were addressing a puppy.  The Greek word for dog used here does make the distinction between a household animal and the wild, stray dogs that roamed during that time. The problem with this theory is that the Aramaic Jesus spoke did not contain this particular distinction.
            There is the possibility that this was Jesus’ way of testing the woman’s faith. If she passed the test, then her request would be granted. He tested. She passed. But when did Jesus test people before he healed them or their loved ones? I can’t think of another example. He did not make the crowds pass a test before he fed them. He might have turned the tests that the religious scholars used to try and trap him on their heads, but he didn’t test the people who came to him for help.
            Another possibility is that this story must be taken just as it is; harshness and all.  Jesus was a Jewish man of his day. He lived in a particular context and that context included chauvinism toward women and suspicion of outsiders, others. One commentator I read, wrote, “His limited perspective is in part corrected by the clever retort of a desperately bold woman, who convinces him that Gentiles must also share in God’s bounty.”
            Does that mean that Jesus learned? Does that mean that this woman pushed him to see with a new perspective? Does that mean that her persistence, her undeterred pleading changed his mind, opened his mind and taught him something?
            Yes, I know that idea, that possibility makes us uncomfortable. Yes, I realize that pushes back against what we have been taught to believe and understand about Jesus. But Jesus was fully human. As one commentator put it, Jesus endured all of the tests and trials that all humans do, but he did not sin. Maybe not sinning does not mean that Jesus didn’t have something to learn. Maybe not sinning means that Jesus actually did learn. When confronted, he did not fall back on excuses or defensiveness to justify his position. Maybe he learned from this Canaanite woman, this Gentile, this other, saw that he was wrong and immediately corrected course. Maybe not sinning was that he learned, heard her and changed direction. He was open to her pleas, to what he could learn from her, and to what God was speaking through her.
            Did Jesus learn? It seems to me that if he did, then that is our good news. Because it means that we still have much to learn. It means that not only is God still speaking, but may be speaking to us through the most unlikely of people; people who are undeterred in making us listen, undeterred in calling us to see. Jesus learned, and if Jesus learned, then so can we. May we be undeterred in faithfulness. May we be undeterred in learning. May we be undeterred in being willing to change and correct our course when God sends us a new lesson. May we be undeterred.
            Thanks be to God!

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In My Skin

            My last name, Busse, is German. When telling people how to spell it, I say,
“It’s like a school bus with an extra ‘s’ and an ‘e.’” You pronounce it, “Bus-see.”
But people say, “Boo-see” or “Bus.” They try to add a ‘y’ at the end. It’s strange, but you get my point. For a short little last name, it seems to cause big problems in the realm of pronunciation and spelling. While I’ve never been ashamed of my last name, I have been ashamed of the heritage it represents.
My mother is Swedish, and it was her Scandinavian heritage that was celebrated in my home growing up. Our Christmases were Swedish with Norwegian overtones. My parents avidly collected Danish Christmas plates for years. In second or third grade, we presented a Christmas Around the World extravaganza for our school Christmas play. Because of my Swedish DNA, I desperately wanted to be Santa Lucia – the saint of Swedish tradition. Little Swedish girls dress up as her on Christmas day, complete with her outfit of a white robe and a crown of candles. But I have dark hair, so I played the traditional Italian character – I don’t even remember who that character was – and my friend, who was very blonde, played Santa Lucia. (It turns out that the real Santa Lucia was, in fact, Italian and had dark hair. I could have played her! I still have some issues with this, but at almost age 52 I’m trying to finally let it go.)
            As a child, even as a teenager and young adult, I never really thought about the fact that my dad also wholeheartedly accepted the Scandinavian traditions we celebrated. Not once did we ever talk about anything German. He never shared what might have been a German tradition from his family. Both of my grandfathers were ministers, so I know that on holidays such as Christmas they went to church. But traditions from Germany were not a part of my family life; not at all. I never questioned this. I knew that I was ashamed of my German heritage because of Hitler and Nazism, the Holocaust, both World Wars, but I did not think about the fact that my father was ashamed as well.
            It was not until I was in seminary in my late 20’s, and I was reading the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I began to let go of some of that shame. I shared that with my dad, and that is when he told me that he felt the same way. He also felt shame for being German and for the terrible evils that had been done by Germans. He also started reading Bonhoeffer and it helped him too. It helped to know that there were some Germans who did not actively participate in the Nazi party; Germans who did not turn a blind eye as their Jewish neighbors were herded from their homes, but who resisted Hitler, who worked against Hitler, who willingly sacrificed their lives to stop Hitler and the evil, the complete and utter evil that Hitler and his Nazis unleashed on the world.  
I write about the shame I have felt over my German DNA because I also feel shame about the color of my skin, my whiteness. I cannot help that I was born white, anymore than anyone can help being born in their unique skin regardless of its particular amount of melanin. But I am ashamed of my whiteness, because it has given me privilege, and it has given me power, and so much evil has been done in its name.
            This past Sunday, after a weekend spent watching the terrible and tragic events unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, I changed the course of my sermon to call out racism. I’ve gotten some good feedback and positive affirmation. But as I have read through the sermon again and again, I know that it is not enough. I wish I had said more, written it differently, better. I’m holding my sermon up to a blog I subscribe to called AfroSapiophile. It can be tough to read, or maybe it is just tough for me as a white person to read. But I read it anyway, because I have to. It serves as a relentlessly honest mirror into which I must look. Sometimes as I am reading the hard statements written about white people and whiteness in America, I think,
“No! No! That’s not me. I’m not that white person! I see the injustice in our society. I see it. I acknowledge it. I don’t defend it.”
Yes, Amy, all that may be true, but what am I doing about it? Racism is a cancer that needs to be excised out of our country, out of our systems, and out of our individual persons. I serve a church that is as diseased by racism as any other institution. Yes, a lot of us are woke, or trying to wake up. We are trying. But there is so much more to be done. So much more we must do. Maybe the first step as a white person is admitting our culpability in a society that rewards us for being white. As white people we have to talk about this. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to be willing to look at pictures that hurt and read stories that hurt and listen – this is a big one – to people of color. Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I read that many people of color wish that if they could have one super power, that power would not be invisibility or super strength, it would be that white people would believe them. White people would believe them when they say that they are treated differently by police, and that they are treated differently in stores, and differently just out in the world. I never realized that wishing for the ability to fly was a luxury. Some people just want to be believed.
I do not want to be ashamed of who I am, of who God created me to be. But in the name of my skin color, other people, who are different from me biologically only by the shade of their skin, have been made to feel less than human. Worse, far worse, those other people, those sisters and brothers, have been treated as less than human. This brutality didn’t just happen a long time ago, then it ended and people need to get over it already. This reality goes on and on and on. It will not stop until we make it stop. It will not stop until white people acknowledge that it is real and happening, and that we are culpable. It will not stop until we make it stop. We have to make it stop. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Drowning In Fear

Matthew 14:22-33
August 13, 2017

There is a framed poster on my dining room wall. Brent gave it to me for my birthday last year. It is a print from a photograph we saw when we toured the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last year. The title of the photo is “Courage: Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.” The picture is of five young Black women and men with their backs to the camera, pushed up against a brick wall. They are pinned there, not by hands or chains, but by water. Off camera someone is holding a high-powered hose, and a terrible onslaught of water is aimed directly at them. Their arms and hands are flung over their faces and heads, trying to protect them from the painful bite of the water. The young women and men are not holding guns. They aren’t dressed as gang members. But the hoses were turned on them anyway. At the bottom of the print, the definition for courage is added.
“Courage. Noun. 1 mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear and difficulty”
I see this print all the time. My house isn’t very big, and the dining room is the first room you walk into. It’s the room where I work when I am working at home, and even when my back is to the picture, I am viscerally aware of its presence. I often wonder if I were to find myself in a moment or in a time when I have to choose, when I have to make a stand, will I have that kind of courage? Will I be able to do what those women and men did? Will I be willing to endure the pain of that water? Will I be willing to put my life on the line to stand up for what I believe to be true and right and just?
The etymology of the word “courage” comes partially from the Latin word for heart. Today, we may understand courage as being more about bravery, but the word courage has the connotation of living from the heart.
When Jesus walked on the sea toward the disciples, making them think they were seeing a ghost or a phantom, he told them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
            In other words, he told them, “Have courage, I am who I am; do not be afraid.”
            Then Peter, brash, impulsive Peter, told Jesus, maybe even challenged Jesus,
            “Okay, Jesus, if it’s really you, command me to get out of this boat and walk on the sea to you.”
            So Jesus said,
            “Come.”
            Maybe somebody else would have faltered because Jesus called his bluff. But Peter did it. He stepped out of the boat. He started walking on the sea toward Jesus. But Jesus had not calmed the wild waves. Jesus had not calmed the storm. When Peter noticed the wind, he became frightened and started to sink beneath the waves. Drowning, he cried out to Jesus,
            “Lord, save me!”
            Jesus immediately reached out his hand to Peter and saved him. When they both reached the boat, he looked at his disciple and said,
            “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            The question is whether Jesus was rebuking Peter. Was he mad at Peter? Was he sad for Peter? Whether or not Jesus was mad or sad, I think there is a connection here between courage, heart and faith. Peter lost his courage; he forgot to follow his heart. As one commentator put it, Peter knew in his heart who Jesus was, what Jesus was. But his courage failed him. The easy way out in this very familiar passage would be to say if Peter had just kept his eyes on Jesus, he would have kept right on walking, but let’s face it the storms are real. The winds are vicious. Peter became afraid. It was fear that almost made him drown.
            Fear is paralyzing. Fear changes you. Fear makes you do things, say things. Fear and hatred too often walk hand in hand. Originally this was going to be a nice, safe sermon about our fears as a congregation as to the next steps that we are taking. We are buying a building, taking risks, acting like Peter and putting our foot in the water, hoping, trusting that we’ll be okay. But then Charlottesville happened. Yesterday, in the midst of the bittersweet emotions of moving Phoebe into her college dorm, I kept watching what was happening there. I belong to several clergy groups on social media, and there were many, many clergy folks participating in the peaceful counter protest to the KKK and Nazi rally at the University of Virginia. So I read tweets and comments about the violence happening, and a church being surrounded by protesters with torches. I saw video of clergy people and other protesters standing, holding hands, singing, in the face of men who were armed – and they were not the National Guard or the police. And then a car drove into the crowd of counter protesters, and a young woman was killed and many others were injured. And I heard Jesus tell me, not something that happens very often, I will admit,
            “Amy, you need to get out of the boat.”
            So, here I am, out of the boat, trying not to let my fear make me sink. Because I know that many of you, maybe most of you, don’t want to hear me preach another sermon or give another talk about racism. I know where many of us stand politically. You certainly know where I stand. But this goes beyond political party. It goes beyond conservative or liberal. This goes to the very heart of our faith. Because you see, you did not call me to be shy. And even if you did, God did not call me to be quiet.
            The truth is I am tired. I am tired and weary and exhausted to the depths of my soul with the hatred that has been emboldened in our country. It has been simmering underneath the surface for a long, long time. But in this last year, it has been given permission to run rampant; it has been given credibility and social status. I am disgusted, appalled and heartsick over what has happened in Charlottesville. But I am not surprised.
            Yet, what I find most offensive is that the people who carried those torches, the people who waved those Nazi flags and raised their arms in Seig Heil salutes, and wore those despicable hoods, well I would bet good money that they would claim Christianity as their faith. They not only would consider themselves good Americans, they consider themselves good Christians. That makes me literally sick to my stomach. How dare they hijack my faith in the name of their repulsive extremism, hatred and violence? I wonder how often our Muslim brothers and sisters say the very same thing?
            That’s what they have done. They have hijacked our faith. They have twisted the gospel. The God we worship became incarnate in a Middle Eastern Jew who I guarantee you did not have blue eyes and blonde hair. He was brutally executed by the occupying Roman government in a most hideous form of capital punishment. But not before he preached to the powers and principalities that the Law of God was based on active Love for God and for neighbor. He told the people that they would be judged for how they cared for the least of these. He showed preferential treatment for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the weak, and the excluded.
            So I’m tired of these alt right groups – what a sanitized description that is – using my faith as justification for their hatred and their racism. But I’m even more tired of the racism that has been a cancer in our country since its foundation. I’m even more tired that we won’t talk about it, that we won’t acknowledge it, that we won’t own it. Our country was built on the backs of slaves. Human beings were sold as chattel. I have black friends who have been told by strangers to “go back to Africa,” as if their ancestors came here by choice. We have to talk about it.
            Even after the Civil War and the end of slavery, with Jim Crow, there was no real emancipation. Between the end of the Civil War and well into the 1900’s it is estimated that at least 3,000 black people – men, women and children – were lynched. Think about that. The legacy of racism is a constant stain on this country. It is systemic, and if affects each and every one of us, even if we do everything we can not to be prejudiced. We have to talk about it.
            During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. They lost everything – their homes, their businesses. You know what internment camps are by definition? Concentration camps; just no gas chambers. Asian Americans talk about how they and their family have lived in this country for generations, but when they meet someone for the first time, they are often asked, “Where are you from?”, as in what country are you here from. We have to talk about it.
            And my beloved home state of Tennessee is also the home state of Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the one who finally sent Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. So many tribes are here in Oklahoma because of what he did, because of his racist and flawed policies.
            I know. You’re tired of this. You don’t want to hear anymore about racism. I don’t want to preach about it anymore either. I shouldn’t have to. In 2017, I shouldn’t have to preach that groups of people carrying torches and shouting, “blood and soil,” and waving flags with swastikas are the antithesis of the gospel, but here we are. To remain silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice. And white Christians, the other white Christians, have to start speaking up and out. Because you see, none of us are safe. None of us are immune from the violence that happened in Charlottesville. We can stay in the boat and we can mind our own business, but the boat is sinking and we will drown in our fear. So, I’m going to get out of the boat and I’m going walk toward Jesus, knowing that the storm is real, knowing that my fears are real, but trusting that the good news is more real than anything else. That good news is this, that God is God, and that I am called, we are called, to be faithful, to have courage, and to trust to the depths of our hearts that we are not alone. We are not alone, God is with us, and God is faithful, God is sure.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

All Ate and Were Filled

Matthew 14:13-21
August 6, 2017

            Have you ever heard the joke about the person who gains weight so easily that all she has to do is look at a picture of something fattening and she’ll gain five pounds? I used to tell that joke all the time. As a person who has always been “weight conscious,” that joke rings true. I gain weight quickly and with very little effort. Then I read an article in some magazine that said there was some truth behind that joke. It had something to do with hormone production and subliminal thoughts and overeating; I don’t really remember the supposed science behind it. I just know that once I read that article, I stopped making that joke. Why tempt fate?
            But I am ever more conscious that my weight consciousness is a first world problem. While I can become obsessive about having too much food at my disposal, the latest statistics state that right now six million people are at risk of starvation in Somalia. Another 14 million are at risk of starvation in Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan.[1] “It is the gravest emergency since the Second World War, according to the United Nations.”[2]
            While I fight against the temptation of overeating, there are, literally, millions upon millions of people – men, women and children – starving to death.
            The scene that we turn to in our passage from the gospel this morning is not one of famine, although as we know from the Old Testament, the Near East was no stranger to its devastating effects. But though the people of Israel were not suffering starvation on the scale of what is happening in the Horn of Africa, it is highly likely that food insecurity was a daily reality. Jesus and the disciples were faced with a large crowd of hungry people.
This story is commonly known as the feeding of the 5,000. Although at the end of the story, we hear that number only includes the men present. Besides the men there were also women and children whose numbers we don’t know. So maybe we should know this story as Jesus Feeding the 5,000 Plus or Jesus Feeding the 5,000 and More.
            This is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four gospels; and Matthew includes another feeding story in the next chapter where 4,000 are fed. The fact that all four gospel writers chose to include this event, even though each telling is slightly different, indicates that this meal is essential in their understanding of Jesus: of what he did and who he was.
            The temptation with a story such as this one is to try and explain the miracle that happened. How did Jesus multiply those five loaves and two fish so that all those thousands of people would have enough? But is following that line of thinking just going down a rabbit hole, a distraction? Is the multiplication the real miracle of the story? Or is there something else at work in this story that is far more miraculous?
            The first sentence of the passage suggests that we are in the middle of something much larger.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
            “Now when Jesus heard this.” What did he hear? He heard about John the Baptist’s death by beheading. The irony of that is the decision to behead John was made at a banquet given to celebrate the ruler Herod’s birthday. It was a very different feast from the one that would soon be celebrated by Jesus, the disciples and the crowds of people. John was in the habit of speaking the truth to Herod about his relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. While Herod didn’t like hearing that truth, he was fascinated by John, and he was scared to put John to death because he feared the crowds who saw John as a prophet. Yet at this banquet, which I imagine to have been both a sumptuous feast and a decadent bacchanal, Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod. Her dancing pleased him so much he swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked for. Well she asked for John’s head on a platter. And that’s what she got. 
            This is the news that Jesus was given. That is what he heard. Because of that he withdrew. He took a boat and went alone to a deserted place. When Jesus withdrew in that way, he usually did so to pray, to be with God in quiet and peace. I think he wanted to grieve. 
            But his alone time was not to be, because the crowds followed him wherever he went. Jesus took a boat, and the crowds followed him on foot.  When Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd of people waiting for him, and whatever his own needs were, he had compassion for them. He healed their sick. He cured them of their illnesses. He had compassion for them.
            When evening fell, the crowds did not leave. The disciples saw that it was late, and they knew the people were hungry. They urged Jesus to send the folks away. I’m guessing that they knew the crowds would listen to Jesus’ instructions to do so without complaint.
“Look Jesus, it’s late. The people must be famished. This place is deserted. There’s nowhere to get food around here. Why don’t you send them off to the villages to find some food before it gets much later?”
However, Jesus didn’t bite on their suggestion – pun intended.     
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 
Yet what can the disciples give them? They only have five puny loaves of bread and two measly fish. It’s meager fare for even just two people, much less thousands. 
            But the disciples gave Jesus what they had. And in an action that foreshadowed the Eucharist, Jesus took the bread and the fish, he raised his eyes up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves, gave the food to the disciples, who then distributed it to the waiting crowds. It was enough. All were fed. The leftovers of the broken bread numbered twelve baskets. Perhaps it was not a rich banquet such as the one Herod celebrated, but all were fed.
            This was miraculous, but it was not magic. Jesus did not lift up his eyes and hold up the food to the heavens, and in an act of prestidigitation make more food appear.  He thanked God, he pronounced a blessing, and gave the disciples what they’ve given to him.  And all are fed.
            Perhaps another change of title is due: The Disciples Feed 5,000 Plus! Jesus told them to do it. Jesus encouraged them, and showed them that they had the resources at their disposal. Jesus blessed the food, but it was the disciples who distributed the food. It was the disciples who did the feeding. Jesus took what the disciples thought was a meager offering of food on their part and turned it into a feast of plenty. What they saw as scarcity, Jesus saw as abundance.
            We’ve spent the last weeks reading about parables that compare the kingdom of heaven as something small that not only grows but is pervasive; that seems unlikely and meager, but in fact is abundant. Why would it surprise us or anyone that out of this small portion of food Jesus could feed thousands? As I said earlier, I’m not convinced that this is the true miracle of the story. What is most miraculous to me is not that Jesus made a feast out of nothing, but that Jesus made a feast. Who would have blamed him had he sent the people into villages to find food for themselves? In clergy circles, it would have been called setting boundaries. But it seems to me that what this story is about is not the miracle but what it reveals about God through Jesus. What we really know about God, we know through Jesus. Jesus, God’s incarnation, revealed the character and nature of God. Although Jesus went to find a quiet alone place, when he saw the crowds he had compassion for them. He healed them. He made sure that they were fed. In the face of overwhelming need, he empowered the disciples to take what they had and care for the people. The miracle is that instead of seeing scarcity – which is where I lead from most of the time – Jesus saw abundance.
            How different would my life be, how different would our ministry be, if we looked at our resources, at our abilities, at our time and talents and saw abundance instead of scarcity? How many miracles would happen? How many lives would be changed? How many hungry people could be fed? How many people would eat and have their fill?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.



[1] “A Fierce Famine Stalks Africa,” Nadifa Mohamed, NY Times Opinion Pages, June 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017

            The story goes that he was just the crazy old man of the village. Every day at dawn he would go into the hills with his shovel, and he would not come back until sunset. He never told anyone why he went up there or what he did. He just went day after day, year after year. One day the crazy old man did not wake up. He died in his sleep. After he was buried, the villagers decided to go up to the hills and see if they could find what he had been doing all those years.
            This village that the old man lived in was in a remote location on one side of a steep hill. In order to get to the nearest larger city with a hospital, you had to take the road which wound its way around the hill. It took hours, and someone could die en route. That is what happened to the old man’s wife. She was sick, and he was trying to get her to the hospital for treatment. But the road around the hill was too long. She died before they could reach help.
            What had the crazy old man been doing all those years? He was digging a road through the hill. He was digging a road through the hill. It was wide and smooth and it shortened the journey from the village to the city from hours to one, from many kilometers to four. The crazy old man was not so crazy after all. He did not want anyone else to suffer what his wife had suffered. He did not want anyone else to go through what they had gone through. He took his shovel and dug a road through the hill.
            No one knew what he was doing. They assumed he was just crazy and went off by himself to do crazy things. Apparently no one apparently asked him what he was doing, or if they did he did not answer. But he took a small thing and made it large. He did something in secret that became a visible blessing. The kingdom of heaven just might be like that crazy old man.
            I will confess that I have started and deleted this sermon about five times. The last time was at 8:00 this morning. I realize that verges on the ridiculous. Just write something already and be done with it. But I knew that what I had on paper was not what I was supposed to have. I’m not sure that I’m any closer, but time will tell. So look for these parables as the basis of a sermon series or a Bible study down the road. It’s not that our passage didn’t give me enough to work; it’s that there is so much!
Jesus told these parables in rapid-fire succession. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows from its infinitesimal size to a large and flowering bush that welcomes birds of every kind. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides yeast – that is the literal translation; she is not “mixing in” yeast, she is hiding it – into three measures of flour. That is an enormous amount of flour. It’s estimated to be about fifty pounds?! That would make enough bread to feed an entire community. Then Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that was hidden in a field. When a person finds that treasure, he joyfully goes and sells everything he has to buy that field and obtain that treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great value. A merchant, when he finds that one magnificent pearl, sells off all his other merchandise just to own that pearl. And the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that brings in fish of every kind. When the dragnet was full, it was hauled to shore and the fish were sorted. The good fish were kept and put into baskets. The bad fish were thrown out. That will be what happens at the end of the age. The good will be kept. The bad will be thrown into the fire, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
            When he finished telling these parables, Jesus asked the disciples,
            “Have you understood all this?”
            They answered,
            “Yes!”
            And I want to shout,
            “No!”
            No, they don’t, and no I don’t either, because these are some crazy sounding parables. I am not saying that lightly either. If these parables are glimpses of the kingdom, then the kingdom of heaven sounds a little bit nuts.
            The kingdom of heaven is an invasive weed. The kingdom of heaven is subversive. The term “subversive” is one used by several scholars in their description of the woman’s actions and the mustard seed. In thinking about that woman, why did she hide the yeast? I know that yeast has negative connotations in scripture – beware the yeast of the Pharisees. It can be seen as a corrupting influence. But for bread to rise, yeast is necessary. Unless that bread was supposed to be matzo, then having yeast hidden in it would have been quite the surprise.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds kind of dubious as well. Of course it is a treasure, but hidden in a field? It makes me uncomfortable to think of the person who found the treasure buying that field from the owner and not telling the owner about the treasure. All I can think of are the indigenous people living on land that had some value to it: coal, diamonds, gold, etc., and the people who bought the land from them for pennies when it worth millions.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds like it caused someone to make a bad business decision. The merchant sold everything he had in order to own that one pearl. That pearl was splendid, but if you sell off all your merchandise, you are no longer a merchant.
            The dragnet is probably the only one of these parables that I would expect, and I still don’t like it because it hearkens back to my childhood days of God being the God of fire and brimstone. Be good or watch out!
            The kingdom of heaven as Jesus described it sounds strange and unlike anything I would ever expect. Where are the angels and the perfect people wandering around in robes with harps and halos? Where are the endless blue skies and the affirmation that I will be able to fly, or at least float, my way through eternity? Isn’t the kingdom of heaven supposed to be about perfection? If so, then what Jesus described seems far from perfect.
            But Jesus was not describing a geographical location that we reach after we die. Nor was he describing a Utopia. The kingdom of heaven was in their midst, right then. That’s what Jesus brought to fulfillment. The kingdom of heaven was already there. And although it might have started small, it would grow and flourish and spread with abandon.
            The kingdom of heaven might seem hidden from view, hidden to the eye, but it was there doing its work, reaching every corner like yeast leavening dough. Although subversion might seem like a radical word; considering the work of the kingdom as subverting the work of the world with the work of God is a comfort. When the world these days seems most particularly opposite to the will and work of God, knowing that the kingdom of heaven is here, even though it’s hidden from my sight gives me great hope.
            The kingdom of heaven is a treasure that we will do anything to have, anything to own. Of course it looks like a bad or dubious business decision. When did following a call or doing something for the gospel or living empowered by the Holy Spirit not look weird or dubious or just plain bad according to the world’s sensibilities?
            And as far as that dragnet goes, well what do we know of God? What do we know of God’s intentions for the world, especially in light of Jesus, his incarnation of Love and Life? If God just wants to save some and damn others than why bother with grace? Why offer us mercy? I’m a good Presbyterian, and I hold to the predestination that we read about in Romans, but I think that God predestines us for good. I think God is always at our shoulder calling us to follow, to go the way of love and life.
            So the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom of heaven is weird and wild and unexpected. I love our denomination, but the kingdom of heaven is definitely not decent and in good order. The kingdom of heaven looks nothing like we think it should. It looks nothing like we would design it to look like. It looks nothing like we would create. It looks nothing like we would build. The kingdom of heaven is like that man who took a shovel to dig a road out of a hill. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. Thanks be to God.

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

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.