Saturday, July 26, 2008

11 Pentecost Yr A

In a culture where bigger seems always to be better, this little collection of parables just don’t fit. When the life of the spirit is ignored, and people are fed with the only nourishment available, the consumptive acquisition of material goods, these stories just seem silly. But these stories show us the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is surprising, even shocking, amazing and wonderful. Each of these stories is about the ordinary, the mundane. They are not about anything really valuable, except the pearl, possibly. A mustard seed, leaven and dough, a treasure hidden in an ordinary field, shopping, and fish. The smallness of the mustard seed is inappropriate for the greatness of the Kingdom of God. The amount of leavening dough will expand far beyond its original container. These kingdom of God parables serve to show us that the kingdom of God is nothing like the ordinary, nothing like the known, nothing like the empire, nothing like social relationships, nothing like family relationships.

And each of these little stories shows us transformation. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed turning into a plant, yeast turning into more dough than anyone can bake, an ordinary field becomes a treasure chest; an empty net becomes full of fish.

The Kingdom of God was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth. That is what Jesus taught us to pray for. This is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are about. We are not to be taken away from this earth but the resurrection makes us agents of the transformation of this earth, today and in the future, this is the now and not yet, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The Kingdom of God is so big, so amazing, so wonderful there is nothing in our experience to which it can be related, therefore metaphor and parable are all we have. Our language can only point to the possibility, the picture can only begin to tickle the imagination. The Kingdom of God is like this little mustard seed taking hold and growing, eventually it becomes a bush in which the birds can find shelter and rest. The Kingdom of God is like the yeast in the dough, enough to make that dough so huge it cannot be contained.
The Kingdom of God transforms your life, right here, right now. What was dead is alive. Wake up people, to the promise of new life, to the promise of transformation, to the promise that you will encounter God in your midst in the mundane and ordinary.

Where do we see God at work in our midst? Where do we see a mustard seed-like bush, that really doesn’t exist for it’s own sake, but for the sake of those who benefit from its life?

These encounters are all around us. Each time we say yes to the possibility that like the mustard bush, we don’t exist for our own sake, but for the sake of those who may benefit from our protection, or encouragement or kindness. Each time we say yes to the possibility that life can be deeper and meaningful because God came into our midst and lived and loved, suffered and died we become more like the human God has called us to be.

The thing about transformation, this kind of transformation, where God takes hold and does something surprising, even shocking is that it usually feels like chaos, it usually feels like a loss of control. In fact, I do believe when we feel most in control, we are farthest from being molded and shaped in God’s image. But most of our energy is spent on staying in control, preserving the comfortable. The parables show us however that after the encounter, nothing is the same. Everything changes when you find, or are found by, the gospel.

Do we live our lives in this reality? Do we really live our lives so that the gospel which startles us, shocks us, challenges us, is at the center of our lives? Because when we do, stuff happens, a new thing arrives. We can never plan these new things, or new people, or new challenges, but we can say yes to them, we can make room for the possibility that God is interested in reaching out to us with the gift of new life, resurrection. And when we do, all of a sudden we begin to hear God’s call. People enter our lives that make us think, or make us uncomfortable, or demand our attention, our energy, our resources. When we live our lives with the gospel at the center, we realize that pain and forgiveness are part of the reality, and we see our sinfulness, our shortcomings, a little more clearly, at least clearly enough that we are brought to our knees to be forgiven.

When we continue to ignore the gospel surprise, and when we divert our attention to removing whatever it is that is causing disruption to minimize the pain and confusion, we only forestall or anesthetize it. And the irony is the forestalled pain must be felt, and when it is, whatever confronted us in the first place seems worse in scope and degree than what it might have been to begin.

What is God calling us to? What does this gospel call us to do? We must ask ourselves these questions. We must look head on at these stories and let them startle us out of our complacency. We must let them call us to be who God has created us to be, even in the chaos of the response.

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Monday, July 21, 2008

10 Pentecost Yr A

The two biggest Minnesota Viking fans of all time, Sven and Ole were up to no good again. They went to Wisconsin to try to sabotage the Packer’s locker room, so the Packer’s would get trapped in there and wouldn’t be able to make it to the big game on Sunday. Well, as it turned out, Sven and Ole’s plan failed, and they were both suffocated to death themselves, while trying to crawl through the ductwork.

Sven and Ole went up to the pearly gates where St. Peter was waiting for them. St. Peter just looked at them and said, “Don’t even think about it. I’ve been hearing about your shenanigans for years now, and quite frankly, I’ve been waiting for this moment.” Sven and Ole were puzzled by St. Peter’s outburst, but they soon found themselves in a very unpleasant place called hell. The devil approached them and told them to shovel 15 tons of coal into the blast furnace in 8 hours, or they would be in big trouble. They did it, 8 hours later Sven and Ole were relaxing on the pile of coal, and the devil came back. The devil asked, “How do you two like hell?” And Sven said, “Vell, it wasn’t too tougha job. The temperature isa bout right. It feels like Minnesota in June, don’t ya know.”

This made the devil very angry, so he turned up the furnace and gave them another 8 hours to shovel 20 tons of coal. The devil came back and there were Sven and Ole relaxing on the coal pile again. The devil asked, “How do you like hell now, does the heat bother you yet?” Ole answered, “Vell, it feels like Minnesota in July, or maybe even August fer sure.”

The devil became so outraged that he turned off the furnaces completely, and opened a cavern that led straight to the North Pole. The devil told them they had 8 hours to shovel the 40 tons of snow that came blowing in. The temperature soon fell to 60 below zero. Time passed and the devil came back. Sven and Ole were reclining in their homemade igloo. The devil could not believe this at all. He asked Sven and Ole how they like hell now. Sven and Ole said that it felt yust like January in Minnesota.

Then they asked the devil what the score of the game was. The devil was bewildered and said, “Why do you ask?” “Vell,” said Sven, “Da Vikings must’ve surely won dat dare Super Bowl, seein’ as how dis here place is frozen over.”

I tell you this Sven and Ole joke, partly because it’s one of my favorites, and partly because it illustrates something important about common speech. Much of our conversation and our written words are in a kind of form. I just told you a joke; most of us recognize the form of a joke. And, I just told you a particular kind of joke, as soon as I said “Sven and Ole” you knew what to expect. It would be stupid it may make fun of Minnesotans, or Packer fans, the details may change from joke to joke, but the form and the characters stay the same. We are familiar with other forms of speech and story telling. When I say, “Once upon a time….” You know I will follow with a fairy tale. If I start with, “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar” you know that another kind of joke is to follow. If I began with something like, “My grandfather always told me…” you may recognize that as an object lesson or a teaching story. If I begin with, “Be it resolved that on this day, the twentieth of July, two thousand eight…” we may be hearing some sort of legal document. Well, you get the picture.

Scripture is full of literature forms, the lists of who begot who is a form, the beginning of the gospel of Luke, we often call the prologue is a form, its purpose is to set up the status of the one the story is about. The Beatitudes are a form; they set up a list of virtues, and then a list of vices.

The parables are a form. Any Jew of Jesus’ time, as soon as they heard “The Kingdom of God is like….” or in Matthew, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” would know that a parable would follow, and would know that the parable is left up to the interpretation of the hearer.

The use of irony, idiom, metaphor, is all dependent on context and even delivery. No wonder we have such a difficult time with parables.

Another thing about parables is that Jesus told them to effect a response in his disciples, and in you and me, who are also disciples. That response may be surprise, it may even be shock. If you aren’t shocked by a parable, you need to take a closer look.

Let’s take a closer look at this morning’s parable. The farm hands of the householder have discovered that someone has sowed weeds in the wheat, and they are beginning to grow alongside the wheat. The farm hands want to pull the weeds, but the householder tells them not to because pulling the weeds would destroy the wheat as well. The householder tells them to let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time collect the weeds first and burn them, and then gather the wheat. Not too much shocking there, but that’s because we are not insiders, we don’t get the irony, we don’t know the idiom, we have to learn some things and then take a closer look.

The wheat and the weeds grow up together. To remove the weeds is to kill the wheat. These are a particular kind of weed. The weed, or tare, in our gospel parable is a specific plant—darnel—a grass that grows in the same zones where wheat is produced. Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature; its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem. The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution—pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with failing seeds.

Parables elicit many interpretations, today I would propose two. The first one has to do with judgment and mercy, the second with death and resurrection.

It is reported that the one who is responsible for the weeds is an enemy. But instead of attacking the enemy who put the weeds there, The householder let the weeds and the wheat live together until harvest, If the householder is like God, the field hands are disciples like you and me, the weeds are those who we may consider bad, or evildoers, or even merely those with whom we disagree, and the wheat is those who we may consider good, right thinking, or merely those with whom we agree; the point is that Jesus’ disciples, you and me are to let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side and leave judgment to God.

Now, that is shocking. Judgment is up to God, Not up to you or me. God’s judgment, God’s righteousness, God’s perfection is perfect love and mercy. Blessings of sun and rain fall upon the righteous and unrighteous alike.

What has happened here is that Jesus has removed the burden of judgment from our shoulders. Jesus went to the cross and absorbed and contained the evil of the world, the evil of his tormenters. Jesus has freed us to give in to love. Don’t be afraid of those weeds, don’t give in to fear. We are not called to serve as judge, judging will only make us more anxious as we try to maintain constant vigilance, always eyeing our neighbor to try to pick out the enemy.

Our vocation is to love, as God first loved us. Jesus is the merciful judge; we don’t have to worry about how to do his job. Jesus is the merciful judge, and so we have access to an unshakable hope, the blessed assurance that we will be judged with the same infinite mercy, as will our enemies.

The wheat and the tare are intertwined; to pull the weeds is to kill the plant. It’s a desperate situation. But we know from this side of the story that Jesus is in a desperate situation. We know that his life leads him to suffering and death on the cross, and we also know that ultimately God inaugurates the new creation in Jesus’ resurrection, but not without the suffering that precedes it. Another way to experience this parable of the wheat and the tare is to let it teach us about death and resurrection. Maybe the householder is wise in letting the wheat and the tare grow up together because the householder knows something about suffering and death. The wheat will die because the tare kills it off. Maybe this parable is about dying to that which is killing us so that we may rise again to the new life that God has in store for us. What is it that is killing us? What is it that we need to die to so that we may have the new life that God promises? What is it that we need to die to so that the clutter is cleared and we may hear God’s call to us?

What is it that our church needs to die to, so that we may hear God’s call to us? Maybe this parable is about dying to that which is killing us so that we may rise again to the new life that God has in store for us.

Maybe this parable is about justice and mercy, maybe this parable is about dying and rising again, maybe this time, this parable is about you.

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

9 Pentecost Yr A

The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who sows seeds, some fall on the path and the birds eat them up, some fall on the rocky soil and they spring up and wither quickly, some fall among thorns and are choked, others fall on fertile ground and bring forth grain. The Kingdom of God is like… always precedes a story like this one, whether or not the words are actually there. Jesus teaches his hearers about the Kingdom of God when he tells these stories that at times seem so difficult to enter into. But remember, you are always a character in these stories; you can find yourself there somewhere.

These Kingdom of God stories, these parables, are all about you and me and our role in God’s kingdom. We are agents of new creation; the new creation is the Kingdom of God. God began something absolutely new with Jesus. Just as God created the heavens and the earth and all the creatures in the beginning, God recreates the heavens and the earth with this new thing he does in Jesus. In the incarnation, in the word made flesh, in the midst of you and me. This new thing is the Kingdom, it is the new creation, it is where you and I belong, it is where you and I live.

In this particular Kingdom of God story, it is clear that the Kingdom is diverse. There is the path, the rocky soil, the thorns, and the fertile ground. In God’s Kingdom, we are at one time or another like any one of these soils. I’m not going to say to you today be like the fertile soil or else. I don’t think that’s the way of the Kingdom. The way of the Kingdom is that as human beings we are at one time or another like the thorns, or the stony path, or the rocky soil, or the fertile ground. But it is also very clear that when we are like the fertile soil, we will bear fruit. And bearing fruit is what the gospel writer Matthew is all about. The marker of one who participates fully as an agent of new creation, as a co-creator with God of this absolutely new thing that God is doing, is the fruit.

There is not a single story that tells us exactly what kind of fruit we should bear. There are stories about figs, olives, dates, pomegranates, which would all make an interesting salad. And there are no stories about tomatoes or mangos that are themselves delicious. The stories of the Kingdom are about fruit that is good and healthy.

Being an agent of new creation, participating in the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, is a fruit bearing activity. It is to encounter Jesus in our midst, it is to live a life transformed by the resurrection so that resurrection is abundantly evident in all you do. Living as an agent of new creation is to take incarnation seriously. God in the flesh, God in our midst, is a reality that is embodied by people we may encounter every day.

I was up at the office of the Pennington county treasurer just the other day. Now anyone whose last name begins with L was informed quite some time ago that it would be a good idea to take care of license tabs before the 30th of June, because a whole new computer system would be coming online and there surely would be some bugs to work out. Well, I took care of our cars, Rick actually did, before the end of June, so we figured that was that. But Willie, on his way to EYE, said that he thought the tabs on the Honda were expired. Now, I thought to myself, I took care of that when I transferred that title after we bought that car from Fr. Bill’s estate, but at the same time I thought, why would he be telling me that now, those tabs would have expired in May. Well, I took a look and low and behold, the tabs were expired, I had completely overlooked transferring that title. So now, knowing there were long lines at the treasurer’s office, I had to go and take care of transferring a title that I really thought I had already done.

So, I went, brought the book I’ve been reading, and prepared to wait in line. I purposely did not look at the time; it only makes me nervous, although my hunch is I waited in line for an hour and a half. I was behind a family with three little ones, and they were delightful. When I was finally the one at the front of the line, I went as soon as called, “next person in line!”

I briefly told my story to Jerri, the Pennington County Treasurers Office clerk, and plunked the 2-inch thick file folder that Bill kept on the Honda on the counter top. I pulled out the title and the bill of sale, and Jerri looked at them quickly and then asked, do you have a release of lien? I must have looked dumbfounded. I began to look through the 2-inch file, and said to her that it must be here, Fr. Bill kept every piece of paper including cancelled checks. Well, it wasn’t there. I think I could have cried.

But this is where fruit bearing comes into this story. Jerri got on the phone to Wells Fargo bank, it was Norwest Bank when Bill took out that loan, and stayed on the phone until she got someone to fax her a “release of lien.” I imagine that I stood in front of Jerri’s counter spot for at least another 45 minutes, while she worked some sort of magic to make this happen.

Jerri could as easily have told me to go away and figure this thing out myself, as making it happen herself. After a couple weeks of long lines and a computer system that had bugs yet to be worked out, Jerri could have been cross with me, she could have told me there was nothing she could do until I had the piece of paper I needed. Whether or not Jerri intended, she was an agent of new creation. She called out of me my best; she turned a difficult situation into a blessing. Not only did I leave the Pennington County Courthouse that day with new license plates, I had spent a solid two hours reading a great book, I had enjoyed the company, I had witnessed incarnation and resurrection, and I went away knowing that Jesus is alive and well in our lives.

Fertile ground receives the seed, and the seed is transformed into something that is absolutely different than it was when it went into the ground. All transformation presupposes death. The fruit that is born from the fertile ground and the seed is fruit that is born from suffering and death. There is no other way. When we walk with Jesus, we open our lives to the suffering and death that is inherent on the way. But when we walk with Jesus, we also become agents of new creation, bearers of the love that God has for all of us. We proclaim God’s love and delight by the fruit that we bear.

I’d like to finish today with the words to a song written and recorded by a woman out of Sioux Falls, Sara Thomsen. The song itself is a parable, and helps me to hear the Kingdom of God is like…..

Darkness cover me
like a blanket of night
oh, cover me lightly

Shadows gather around me
Deepening darkness
Whispering softly

Holy Maker of Moonlight
Singing through the starlight

Keeper of all life
Hidden seed deep in the dark soil of the earth
Fertile ground, womb of the night, bring us new birth

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

8 Pentecost Yr A

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him. Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Some may recognize these as the “comfortable words” from the 1928 prayer book. These words connect us in a timeless way to all those before us who held in their hands their beloved prayer books, and they connect us in some mystical way to all those who will come after us, probably reading the prayers projected on a flat screen. These “comfortable” words are from the gospel of Matthew as we have just heard. In the 1928 prayer book, they are accompanied by the words from the gospel of John, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him will have eternal life. In the 1928 prayer book, these comfortable words follow the words of absolution, they remind us just as they have reminded all those faithful people that came before us, that in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of our failings and sinfulness, Christ is with us.

For me, these are much more uncomfortable words than comfortable words. These are not words that are meant to conjure up visions of your favorite easy chair, or your well-worn and favorite sweatshirt or tee shirt. They are not comfortable in a way that assures us that we have some sort of corner on the market for the right way to do Christianity. Their comfort is derived from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the “comforter” that Jesus Christ left with us. These are words meant to strengthen us, and to give us hope, not to make us complacent.

"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."

This is indeed good news. God wants to make things easier for us, not harder. It’s as simple as that. Why do we complicate it so? Jesus offers to us something amazing. The offer is that we no longer have to be held hostage to the pressure of perfection that our culture feeds us, and instead, we can live as freed people. The burden of perfection is intolerable; the freedom that Jesus offers is life giving.

The pressure of perfection that our culture feeds us leads us to build bigger houses, spend more of what we don’t have. Somehow we are convinced that what we have becomes important. This is not unlike the people Jesus encountered. The Jews of his time were quite concerned with acquiring wealth and status; they were quite concerned to hob nob with the important people, the people who could confer honor and status on them. Jesus was accused of gluttony and drunkenness because he spent time with those who had no honor and status, the tax collectors and sinners.

The pursuit of perfection, the pursuit of status, is rewarded by stressed out people and stressed out families. Of course I’m preaching to the proverbial choir, but that’s exactly why families seem to have so much trouble getting to church. I don’t think it’s because we’re not cool enough, I think it’s because at the top of a family’s list of things to do is achieving, and that takes so much energy and time, that worship looses out. It’s because if worth is measured by what we have, who we know, how big and expensive our toys are, then worship, rest, slowing down, giving thanks, being forgiven, all loose out.

And yet, just like those who are so busy earning status and respect they don’t have time to get here, there are some of you here today, for whom Jesus’ message of freedom is yet to be realized. You must always remember, you are chosen and marked by God’s love, and the delight of God’s life. You do not need to earn God’s love; you need only to be loved by God. This is exactly the burden that is to be laid down; the burden is the need to work at earning honor and status, the need to earn love by achieving perfection.

It is God’s amazing and abundant love that resulted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new life that is achieved with each and every one of us that results in the freedom Matthew speaks of in this passage. The good news is this freedom. We are new creations, no longer enslaved by the snares of greed, power, status, but instead we are free to be loved absolutely and unconditionally by our creator God.

And, we are free to respond to God’s love. Without that burden, we are free to love one another as God first loves us; we are free to serve one another without expectation of payment or reciprocity. We are free to pay it forward.

Last week we were at the Niobrara Convocation. It was on the Cheyenne River Reservation, at Eagle Butte. It was a beautiful place, the weather cooperated. Our Presiding Bishop was in attendance. She was brilliant and so very graceful. But the story I want to tell is about a group Rick and Willie and I accompanied from our home parish in Minneapolis, St. Luke’s. I’d suggested to the youth minister at St. Luke’s since we came here to St. Andrew’s, that they come to South Dakota, to Rapid, City, to the Black Hills, to Convocation, for their mission trip. Well, this year the youth minister took me up on the idea.

I told Marion Rectinwald, the priest on the Cheyenne River Mission, that this group wanted to come to convocation, and serve in whatever capacity was needed. Marion was somewhat concerned, she has had some difficultly with mission trips from churches just showing up unannounced, and expecting attention and being totally uninterested in actually being engaged with people. I assured her that I would prepare them, and be the go between.

The Thursday morning we left Minneapolis the group was sent off with a nice service of Holy Communion. It was so much fun for us because this was a group of many we had know since they were very young, and two of the chaperones were friends of ours, one of the chaperones we had never met. The adults of the group spoke about paying it forward, about serving others because God had first loved them.

When we arrived at Eagle Butte on Thursday night, nothing was as they had expected it. I had come prepared with the tent and sleeping bags, because I didn’t really know what to expect, so I probably over prepared. With all the rain, the dormitories that had been available to stay in had been damaged,
so some of the group would have to stay in the common building that would also be used for eating and some gathering, not private, and hard floors. Some of the group would stay in the tent.

The wall was immediately put up, the environment was foreign for them to begin with, and with the added snafu, they got scared. These people were unlike them, and they were obviously in the minority. They had been prepared to serve as they were instructed, but not knowing exactly what they were to do added to their discomfort. Both the kids and the adults were experiencing culture shock. They were experiencing loss of control. This service was definitely not going to be on their terms, terms that allowed them to remain aloof and disengaged. Jason, their youth minister gathered them together, listened to their fears, and let them know how important it was for them to listen to the people around them, their work there and their place there would become evident as they encountered one another.

With their initial fears addressed, they began to see the possibilities of how they could serve. They began to be free to serve others, they were free to let go of the outcome and really be engaged in what they were called to do. They were free to respond to God’s love. Without the burden of needing to control, of needing to have status, we are free to love one another as God first loves us; we are free to serve one another without expectation of payment or reciprocity. We are free to pay it forward.

The group spent most of their time in two ways. They engaged the kids who had come with family and parents; they played games, worked on making banners, and generally had a good time. They also helped prepare meals, serve, and clean up, and ended up having a lot of fun doing it.

After all the fears on both sides of this project, the mission group from St. Luke’s was honored for their service and their presence with a star quilt. They were deeply affected by the giving of star quilts, and when one was given to them, they were deeply moved.

"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."

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.