Saturday, July 30, 2011

7 Pentecost Yr A

Our son Tom has a tee shirt that says “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” It’s a tee shirt from Philmont Boy Scout Ranch, a high adventure base in northern New Mexico. I’ve heard it said that Philmont is the adventure a boy scout loves to hate. At the very least, a boy who goes to Philmont doesn’t return the same way he left. Besides being dirty and hungry, with plenty of scrapes and bruises, there’s a change in the way a boy sees the world. Jacob could’ve been wearing that tee shirt in this story today. The story of Jacob wrestling with God, and the story of the feeding of five thousand and then some in Matthew are both stories of transformation.

Jacob’s story is not unlike ours, except for the two wives, two maids, and eleven children, I hope. Jacob wrestled through the night with God and lived through it. But we’ve learned elsewhere that no one survives a face-to-face meeting with God without dying and rising to the new life that God promises. Jacob wrestled with God and was made a new man, he received a new name, and he received a new wound. Transformation is not an easy journey, it is a journey on which we die to ourselves, our obsessions, our materialism, and we rise to the new life that God offers to us.

There’s a friend of ours from a long time ago, Jenny, I've told you about her before. At age 18 she was skiing in Colorado, and her life was suddenly changed. She fell, and never got up again. That fall resulted in Jenny being quadriplegic. She was an athlete in high school, a diver. Jenny wrestled with God; her wound is deep and permanent. But Jenny has worked hard at her independent life, and has been executive director of an organization called Helping Paws. Helping Paws trains dogs and their people to manage life together. Jenny would tell you that she is thankful for the new person she became after her injury. Her injury has made her completely different, and in her opinion, better. The people who know Jenny would attest to the gift she is just the way she is, she has shown that ministry happens out of being wounded.

All of us don’t have that outward wound that Jenny has. Most of our wounds cannot be seen. But just the same, the new life we receive can be a gift. It is not the same as our old life, and it is marked by our wounds. Jesus’ journey to the cross, Jesus’ wounds, and death on that cross is what makes it possible for you and me to survive the wounds that this world deals out, and the wounds that sometimes we inflict ourselves. That wound is the place from which we minister. That wound is the place from which our compassion grows. That wound is the place from which our love for our enemies have meaning. That wound is what gives us hope.

Hope. Woundedness gives us hope. Seems like an odd sort of thought, doesn’t it. It seems counter to what everything in our culture would tell us about hope. Hope is about a secure future. Hope is about the American dream, including a house, a yard, healthy children, a pension and good retirement. No wonder we hear so much of hopelessness these days.

But the hope of the gospel is nothing like that. Hope is about dying; hope is about being wounded, hope is about having everything you think is important being stripped away, and surviving it. Not just surviving it, but being given a new name. Beloved, delight of God’s life.

The disciples in the story we heard from Matthew today, were forgetting about the hope that Jesus offered. After Jesus retreats for some peace and quiet, and the crowds won’t leave him alone, Jesus teaches and cures the sick. As the afternoon wore on, the disciples thought they would send the 5000 or so people into the towns to find something to eat. Can you imagine, out there on the hillside, sending the crowd into town to find something to eat. Someone wasn’t planning ahead. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat. Their response, “we have nothing to offer, except these five loaves of bread and two fish.”

The disciples responded to Jesus with an exasperation that tells of their lack of hope. And their lack of understanding of what Jesus was capable of doing. The disciples responded to Jesus from a position of scarcity. “We have nothing here.” They did not see the five thousand and some people in front of them, with all their woundedness, with all their suffering, with all their joy and excitement to just be in the presence of this rabbi.

And Jesus shows them the abundance that surrounds them. Look what we have, five loaves of bread, and two fish, and all these people with everything they bring with them. “We have enough,” Jesus says, “we have enough.” Jesus blesses what they have, and everyone was fed that day. Not only were they fed, they had leftovers. Twelve baskets of leftovers, enough for everyone in the whole world to be fed.

Too often we approach the world like Jacob, and like the disciples. We approach the world from a position of scarcity. Scarcity that is about the wall we put up around us so that no one can see our fear, our lack of hope, our belief that we are not good enough. God wrestles with us to break down that wall, and in the encounter we are wounded. Scarcity is about letting our woundedness be a source of despair, rather than a fountain of strength and hope. It is in that place that we begin to see the blessing that God has given. We begin to see the abundance that God has for us.

Abundance and blessing. We are transformed. We are fed with the bread and the fish. We are nourished and healed. But the abundance doesn’t end with us. That’s the wonder of the twelve baskets of leftovers. Our blessing is to get those leftovers out to those who need them. We meet God in the encounter, and we cannot be the same because of the encounter, we meet one another face to face as we break bread together, and we have enough to bring out into the world to those who need to be fed, healed, and transformed.

It is our woundedness, our broken hips and our broken hearts, that make us compassionate ministers. We are nourished by the abundance of God’s blessings, in one another and in the bread. We have enough, we have all that is needed, to feed the 5000 and then some, we have enough, we have all that is needed, so that everyone is fed, no one needs go away hungry.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

5 Pentecost Proper 11 Yr A

Scripture is full of literature forms, the lists of who begot who is a form. The beginning of the gospel of Luke, which is the dedication and the birth narrative, 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 they would also know that the meaning of the parable is left up to the interpretation of the hearer. We heard the one about the sower last week, we will hear many more this ordinary season. The use of irony, idiom, and metaphor are part of how a parable is told, and those literary devices rely on context and 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 at least surprised by a parable, you need to take a closer look.

So 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?

I spent quite a bit of time this week asking people about weeds. I asked about the difference between weeds and flowers, I wondered how people determine what is a weed and what is a flower. Many of them look alike to me. I heard that weeds are really only weeds when you don't want them in your garden. When I was out in my yard, my little neighbor Maddie brought me a beautiful bouquet, of dandelions. I've been following the Pickles cartoon in the paper. Earl is battling his dandelions. Earl's grandson Nelson says to him, "whoa grampa, you've got a lot of dandelions, I thought you hated dandelions." Earl responds, "I did, but I've made peace with them. If you look at them with unbiased eyes, they're actually rather pretty."

Maybe this parable is about justice and mercy, maybe this parable is about dying and rising again, maybe this parable is about dying to that which is killing you, maybe this parable is about the beauty of all God's creation, but most assuredly, this parable is about God's amazing and abundant love for you and the guy next to you. Who really knows which of you is the weed, and which one is the wheat.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

4 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 can find yourself in the story somewhere,
that is one of the wonders of the parables, you too are a character in these stories.

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 all about 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 not about a particular kind of fruit, but they are about fruit that is tasty 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 each one of us embodies, and that is embodied by people we may encounter every day.

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. And 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.

In Matthew's theology, "bearing fruit" means living out the kingdom of God. This has nothing to do with piety, nothing to do with syrupy pronouncements, nothing to do with vague decisions, nothing to do even with worship. It means "following on the way," which means imitating Jesus, and doing what he did.

What kind of fruit do you bear? Is it a sweet juicy tomato? A wonderfully tart lemon? An exotic pomegranate? A beautifully ordinary apple? In all that you are, in all that you do, do you offer your fruitfulness to the people you encounter? You see, I think that's what this parable is about. It's about living in the world as an agent of new creation. It is about being the one that offers God's abundant and amazing love to everyone you encounter. You are the one who can make the world sweeter. You are the one who can change the course of events. You can offer those whom you encounter the beauty and sweetness of mercy and compassion, you can offer those whom you encounter the fruit of hospitality, the fruit of welcome, the fruit of forgiveness.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

3 Pentecost Yr A

There are a a few different pictures of Jesus in the gospels, the shepherd, whose sheep know his voice, the charismatic leader who the fisher folk follow at the drop of a net. And this picture we get of Jesus in this portion of Matthew. This is not your warm and fuzzy Jesus. This is much like the Jesus who turns the tables in the temple.

Actually, I am reminded of a scene in C.S. Lewis' story, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The children in the story are sitting in the living room of the Beavers. Mr. Beaver is telling them about the Lion, Aslan. Lucy asks "Is he a man?" Mr. Beaver responds, "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion--the Lion, the great Lion." And Susan responds, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." Mrs. Beaver responds "That you will, dearie, and no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly." Lucy again, "Then he isn't safe?" "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

Jesus is not safe. But he's good, he's the King. This is what our passage from Matthew shows us today. This, I do believe, may be the first big "come to Jesus" meeting. Jesus has words for these people and these communities, Jesus is clear that if they don't shape up there will be consequences.

I preach over and over again God's love for all God's people. I preach over and over again that there is nothing that can get in the way of God's power to bring all creation into right relationship. I preach again and again that Love wins. Paul, in Romans knows that only too well. Paul is quite aware of his humanity, his imperfectness, his struggle. Paul indeed speaks the truth of and to all of us. That somewhere in the mess of our glorious humanity, somewhere in the struggle to hear God's love for us no matter what, there is indeed a need to respond to that love with right behavior and moral decision making, and to treat ourselves and others with mercy and compassion. Paul knows the struggle and the difficulty of this journey of the spirit.

Jesus' call to us to live as citizens of the new kingdom, as the new creations God intends for us, is a call to freedom from bondage to that which will kill us. Thanks be to God, Paul says, for the freedom from the power of the bondage to sin that Jesus Christ offers. Paul speaks about that which will kill him, it is whatever holds power over him, it is whatever holds power over us. This is not necessarily about what is right and wrong, and not necessarily a moral judgment about good and bad. But it most assuredly is about being out of balance, it is about not be centered.

Why do we pray? Why do we quiet ourselves? Why do we return to church each week? Not because of some sort of moral betterment, no, we engage in these activities to be balanced, to be centered, to be able to go out into the world and act from our belovedness. We go out into the world to live in response to that amazing and abundant love that God offers to one and all.

This is a life that prioritizes differently than the world prioritizes. This is a life that puts love and mercy and compassion for ones neighbor ahead of individual wants, needs, and achievement. It is a life that puts community and relationship ahead of personal freedom. It is a life that runs counter to the individualism of our culture. It is the freedom to loose oneself in the love of the other, in order to find oneself.

That said, there are consequences for our choice to live outside of God's way. When we don't love God and love our neighbor there are consequences, and God does put some mighty big no's in our lives. You know how that goes especially when you are raising your children. No, you can't run ahead of us into the street. No, you can't take that toy from your brother. No, you can't play with the knobs on the stove. No. We don't like it because it is, well, just plain negative, just plain offensive, just because. We all struggle with the no's in our lives. We want what we want for a reason, and "no" always runs contrary to those reasons, wants, and desires.

At the same time, as we mature we recognize the value of "no," not only for others but even for ourselves. By saying no to the extra helping of dinner we stay healthier. By saying no to television before studying for the exam we earn a better grade and we learn more. By saying no to claiming the dubious tax exemption we retain a greater sense of honor and contribute to the public welfare. The other side of freedom, we come to recognize, is responsibility, being able to say "no" that we can enjoy a greater "yes."

These "no's" are also the natural consequences of living outside of God's order. We witness those consequences everyday. You know this as well. In the search for connection and relationship and fulfilling loneliness, people turn to sexual promiscuity. In the search for relieving pain, people turn to alcohol and drugs. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Our burdens weigh us down, they keep us in bondage, they prevent us from living this life fully human and fully alive. Cast off that burden. What is it for you? Perfection? Achievement? Money? Anger? Resentment? Revenge? Cast off that burden and say yes to the freedom that Jesus offers.

But this brings us back to where we began today. Saying yes to Jesus frees us from bondage and from our burdens, and it is good, but it is not safe. "They say, he has a demon, the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" Saying yes to Jesus makes us friends of tax collectors and sinners, saying yes to Jesus makes us friends of many whom are marginalized and outcast. Saying yes to Jesus means that we stand for mercy, compassion, forgiveness, not necessarily attributes that are valued these days. Saying yes to Jesus means that we struggle with our own imperfections, and like Paul, we admit when we are wrong. Saying yes to Jesus is good, but it is not safe.