Saturday, July 29, 2017

8 Pentecost Proper 12 Yr A July 30 2017

What does the kingdom of heaven look like? This last set of parables from the writer Matthew shows us that the kingdom of heaven looks like a mustard seed, which is truly tiny and turns into a mighty tree. It looks like last week’s leaven that makes this week’s bread. These are things that show us, Jesus’ followers, that the kingdom of heaven is about growth, growth from the very small, the seed, the leaven, into something very amazing, the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven also looks like letting go of everything, to make what is valuable available, it even looks like a change in direction. And in God’s kingdom, what is old has value, the new age that Jesus brings renews what has come before.

In the kingdom of heaven, the arc of God’s love bends toward growth, and transformation, and resurrection. In our world, on our screens and in our media, precious time is given over to images of opulence, visions of glamour, reflections of power, dreams of stardom. All this causes us to believe we want Hollywood, special effects, big productions, to be the way of our own lives. But this gospel, this good news, makes a claim on our whole lives, it calls us to be all in. These parables show us that money, fame, power, are not what garner joy, but instead, joy and love find us in the dirt, and in the messiness of seeds and dough, where growth can happen, treasure may be found, new life is possible.

When Rick and I moved here to southeastern Wisconsin, we were told that here is the best dirt in all the world. That is a mighty reputation. As we drive around southeastern Wisconsin, getting to know the lay of the land, getting to know the growing things, getting to know you delightful people, it becomes apparent to me, that indeed, it is in the dirt that small things grow into fullness, treasures may be found, and new life is possible.

Here is something I read this week from the gospel according to CS Lewis. “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.” (Letters of CS Lewis in Readings for Meditation and Reflection, ed. Walter Hooper, 1992)

Muck and messiness, mud and manure, this is the very sign of God’s presence, and these are the things that give rise to new life. God’s promise in these stories is that growth will happen and treasure will be found and new life is possible. Rich dirt is comprised of all sorts of grimy gritty things, compost comprised of decayed organic matter. This is where God is present.

Not only do we desire after the special effects, the big production, but we also yearn for the perfect, the orderly, the antiseptic. Just as the over use of anti-bacterial sprays, wipes, and injections is creating populations resistant to bacteria, our wish for anti-septic lives prevents us from getting dirty. What about the floating bugs in the red juice at camp? Or the ash on the spatula that fell into the campfire while trying to turn the pancakes? Or the crunchies in the creamy peanut butter sandwiches eaten as a floating picnic in the canoe in the Boundary Waters? All affectionately lumped together as trail dust. How can God find us if we don’t play and dig in the dirt? How can God find us if we wrap ourselves in a hasmat suit and never come in contact with smelly, wiggly, compost? Because you see, it is the dirt that is the very sign of God’s presence.

And it is in the dirt that tiny seeds grow into great trees. It is in the dirt that treasures are found. In the dirt things happen. We get dirty, and we are broken.

Perfect is a very tenuous state, perfect is on the edge of broken. So much time, money, and attention is spent on perfect, spent on preventing broken, spent on sealing ourselves off from the muck and mess of living. In the striving for perfection, our veneer is so slick, Jesus has trouble finding us. Broken is not bad, broken is being human. And broken is where Jesus’ blood seeps into our very being, healing and bringing us to new life. The tiny seed must be broken apart in the ground, by all the wiggly things that are there with it, so that it may rise up as a mighty tree. If it remains a perfect seed, it always remains in that deep, dark ground, never to see daylight, never to feel the warmth, never to have new life, never to provide rest for the birds, never to offer mercy and compassion for all who come.

Brokenness is a place Jesus finds us. In the dirt, Jesus finds us. In our society, being broken seems to be a bad thing. But in the kingdom of heaven, there is no value judgment on brokenness. I have friends and family, you have friends and family who are broken, who have been broken. Mental illness, physical illness, addiction, these are things that just are. Not bad, not good. Fragmented relationships, priorities out of alignment, lives that need healing. Into these deep, dark places, Jesus seeps, bringing the nourishment, the compost, that heals our hearts. And all of that leaves scars. Because even healing isn’t perfect.

Healing shows the signs of the brokenness that opens us up to the treasure God has for us. The treasure that is found in the dirt, the treasure that is new life, and hope. The pearl that proves our lives are worth dying for.

Even Jesus, even Jesus is broken, broken for us. And we wear the scars of that brokenness. The scars of mercy, of compassion, of justice. We can offer mercy, compassion, justice, to others, because Jesus offers us mercy, compassion, and justice. All of us, no exceptions.

In the kingdom of heaven, the arc of God’s love bends toward growth, and transformation, and resurrection. Resurrection and transformation, now, and not yet. The promise of the kingdom of heaven is the mustard seed that grows into a great tree. The leaven that grows the flour into bread. The treasure that is uncovered in a field. The new kingdom that Jesus begins. We are to live today as if the kingdom has already begun.

This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

7 Pentecost Proper 11 Yr A July 23 2017

(Photo credit - Vaudeth Oberlander)

7 Pentecost Proper 11 Yr A July 23 2017 Audio

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 vasn’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 illustrates so well the plight of a Vikings fan, 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, 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 whom 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 come out in the dark of night, and 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. At this time in Jewish practice, two different things were never to touch each other, that resulted in impurity, and purity along with holiness were the two most important concepts in Jewish life. But Jesus brings this new thing into the world, new life, new love. I think 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. Maybe, this parable is about us.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Yr A, July 16th 2017

Imagine the writer of this gospel we call Matthew as a teacher. In this gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, a curriculum, if you will, teaching us, the followers of Jesus what following looks like. Then, the parables, beginning in chapter 13 with this one, and then many more to follow. Lastly, just before the story of Jesus’ passion, is the ethical teaching, when I was hungry, you fed me, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger, you welcomed me, when I was naked, you clothed me, when I was in prison, you visited me. And, as far as I’m concerned, the Sermon on the mount, and the ethical teaching, seem straightforward and fairly easy to understand. The parables are a different matter entirely. And, this gospel writer seems to list one parable after another, Jesus said this, and then this, and then this, all in a puzzle, or so it seems. We’ll be listening to them for a few weeks now, so how do we listen well?

The question we ask ourselves as we hear the parables from Matthew is this. What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Matthew, different from Mark and Luke, uses the words, kingdom of heaven, Mark and Luke give us kingdom of God, not too much different. But what Matthew may be imagining is a reality that God has begun and sustains, and that is already present, and it is also still to come. We are summoned to respond to God’s activity in our lives, and God in our midst, Jesus, by lives of profound and active righteousness, conduct focused in acts of mercy and hospitality. When we do, we enter into the kingdom of heaven, as it is present now and as it takes shape in the future.

So, let’s get going with the question. In this parable of the ground, and the seeds, and the sower, what does the kingdom of heaven look like? And, we heard Jesus’ interpretation of this parable as well. What does this parable say to us in the here and now, and as God’s kingdom takes shape in the future?

As I ponder the answers to this kingdom question, I realize, we live in a time and place where it feels like there is just never enough: not enough money, or clean water, or fresh air, or fuel, or security, or happiness, or well, you name it. Sometimes this feeling comes from the ads we are subjected to, radio or television, or Internet that strives to create in us a sense of inadequacy that only that particular product can fulfill. Maybe the feeling comes from politicians who, whether from the right, left, or middle, follow a similar strategy by naming what is lacking, what we should fear, and then offering themselves as the solution to our problems.

In this world I believe the parable and Jesus’ interpretation of the parable say to us, something very very different from all of that, Jesus says to us, you are enough, you are loved.

God sows the seed. God sows the seed and some falls on the dirt beside the path. God sows the seed and some falls on the rocky places. God sows the seed that fell among the thorn bushes. And God sows the seed that fell on good soil. In this kingdom, God is the seed sower and the crop that results is wonderful, and it is abundant. We know this because crops never yield grain a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold. Matthew uses this kind of exaggeration so that we hear the abundance. That kind of yield is unheard of. This is the key to this parable. The kingdom of heaven looks like this kind of extraordinary, magnificent, abundance. But that yield is up to God, the sower, and God, the sower of seed, sows that seed in you, no matter where you find yourself today, you are enough.

No matter if you are feeling that you are the dirt beside the path. You are enough, and you are loved. No matter if you are feeling somewhat rocky. You are enough, and you are loved. No matter if you are feeling a bit thorny. You are enough, and you are loved. You may be feeling like good soil, and wonder why there seems to be not much yield. You are enough, and you are loved.

You see, 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.

Because you are enough, and you are loved, you are a part of God’s kingdom vision. God’s kingdom vision in this story of good news, this gospel puzzle, is profound and active righteousness, conduct focused in acts of mercy and hospitality. Those acts of mercy and hospitality look like when I was hungry, you fed me, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger, you welcomed me, when I was naked, you clothed me, when I was in prison, you visited me.

Kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven stories, these parables, are all about you and me and our role in God’s kingdom. We are agents of new creation because God began something absolutely new with 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. And in it, you are enough, you are loved.

And being an agent of new creation, participating in the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus 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. No matter what kind of ground we are today, God loves us, and we are called to respond to God’s abundant love in Jesus, with mercy and hospitality. Because loving us as we are is not, of course, the same as being content with where we are. In fact, precisely because God loves us God wants us to discover the abundant life of trust in God and love of and service to our neighbor. Precisely because God loves us, God wants us to stand against the fear and scarcity that drive prejudice, racism, greed, and violence. Precisely because God loves us, God wants to strive for the equality and dignity of all people. Precisely because God loves us, God wants us to share what we have generously so all will have enough food and shelter. Precisely because God loves us, that is, God wants us to grow into the people God knows we can be. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Yr A, July 9 2017

We have heard these words from the gospel of Matthew so many times, “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.” We’ve heard Jesus call the disciples, Andrew and Simon the fisher folk, and Matthew the tax collector. They dropped everything and immediately followed Jesus. But this passage extends that call, it is an expansive invitation from Jesus to all who can hear, including you and me, to follow. When they fall upon my ears, I listen, but I am not sure that following Jesus is easy, and the burden is light. Sometimes, like you, I think this is really hard. It’s hard to step to a different drummer, when conforming to the values and morals of our culture seems like it would be so much easier. It’s really hard to be the voice in the wilderness that says, resist, resist all that would demean and destroy God’s creation, resist all that would raise the rich and the powerful over and above those who are poor and outcast. Resist the easy fix and the easy answers. When you do, Jesus promises, I will give you rest.

You can do hard things.

Let’s step back just a bit and see what has happened to get us to this place in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s story begins with reporting the glorious works of God being done in Israel, and at this point shifts to focus on Israel’s failure to respond to those works. At the beginning of this chapter 11, Jesus was speaking to the crowds concerning John, the one we call Baptizer. Jesus was singing John’s praises, at the very moment John was in prison awaiting his fate. At the same time, Jesus is railing against those who hold power, and against the common people, all who he compares to stubborn children who would not play well with others. In a passage that was left out of our lectionary reading, Jesus castigates the people for being inhospitable and lacking repentance.

And then Jesus does something I think we’ve all done, he stops what’s he’s doing and saying, and he prays. Jesus prayer at this point reveals the intimacy Jesus has with God. I think Jesus shows us that prayer, being present with God, is necessary when we are called to do hard things. It is what equips us to do hard things.

And then this invitation, come to me, follow me, take my yoke upon you. Jesus knows this is hard, probably the hardest thing we ever do. Jesus is asking the people he encountered, and loved and cared about, to exchange the “yoke” they lived under, which is the control of the empire of Rome, for the “yoke” that Jesus offered, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness.

Again, I need to stop and consider these words. We don’t use the word yoke much anymore. In fact, some of you probably can’t picture a yoke in your heads. It’s a device for joining together a pair of animals to do the farm work of making rows to plant the seeds, in the days farming was done without big machines. The yoke was a piece that went across the shoulders of two large animals, usually oxen, each enclosing the heads of the animals. The yoke was heavy, it kept the animals doing the job the farmer wanted them to do.

When we imagine that yoke, the image becomes clear. Jesus says, leave the heavy burden that is keeping you hostage, and take on a new yoke, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness. Jesus was asking the people of his time to do something very hard. Jesus was asking them to risk everything, their lives and their livelihood, to be free of the empire of Rome. Jesus promises that when we exchange the yoke of the powerful for the yoke of the one who will be crucified, we will find rest.

I think we live in very similar times today. The burdens are huge and heavy. Can we even do that hard thing that Jesus asks? We are shown by our leaders that power over people is much more desirable than working with each other to come to the common good. We see and hear those who are in power that the goal is to make as much money as possible for oneself. There is fear that our way of life, both our secular way of life and our church way of life, is under attack by those who want us to be and do something that we are not. We live at a time and place where we are increasingly taught to believe that true joy, deep satisfaction, and the realization of what we were created for comes through watching out only for ourselves. We do not see very clearly the model that shows us that being in relationship with, and bearing the burdens of those around us is a good and right way to live.

Is the hard thing laying the burden down, laying the burden aside? Or believing Jesus, who says, come to me and I will give you rest, my burden is easy, and my burden is light. You see, Jesus doesn’t simply call our pictures and expectations into question, but also gives us another picture. God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes along side of us. Nothing demonstrates this more than the cross – God’s willingness to embrace all of our life, even to the point of death, in Jesus, to demonstrate God’s profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred…by anything.

It’s not necessarily what we want. We often would prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them, who eliminates challenges rather than equips us for them. It’s not usually what we want, but pretty much exactly what we need. That’s the rest Jesus is talking about. It’s not an easy rest, it’s not usually what we want, but it’s exactly what we need.

And we are reminded that God always shows up where we least expect God to be: in the need of our neighbor, in the person that doesn’t look anything like you, in the person who believes and thinks and acts differently than we do and, just as importantly, than we think they should. And that in all these circumstances, our call is the same: to care for them, to meet them where they are, to accept them as we are able.

In our estimation it’s not easy. But ease is not what Jesus asks of us. Jesus asks us to exchange the burden of the world, for the relationship Jesus offers. It is hard, and we can do hard things. But this is what following Jesus looks like. But as we undertake this new yoke, we discover God in Jesus is already there. Waiting for us, encouraging us, forgiving us, bearing us, loving us. Which is what makes the burden light, the yoke not just easy but joyful. Pick up the yoke that Jesus offers, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness.

It is hard, but we can do hard things. It is joyful, and love does win. Amen.

Feast of Pentecost Yr A May 31 2020 (Sunday after the murder of George Floyd, riots in Minneapolis)

YouTube video Feast of Pentecost Yr A May 31 2020 (Sunday after the murder of George Floyd, riots in Minneapolis) Acts 2:1-21, 1 Co...