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.