Sermons

Sermon: June 14, 2015: Third Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13  +  Psalm 20  +  2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17  +  Mark 4:26-34

97793In his book Disciplines of the Spirit, Howard Thurman tells a story about life’s persistence. He writes,

Many years ago when I lived in Oberlin, Ohio, I noticed workmen digging a large hole in the street in front of my house. When I went out to watch what was going on, I saw that a large section of sewer pipe had been exposed; around it and encircling it was a thick network of roots that had found their way inside the pipe by penetrating the joints in many places. The tree was more than four hundred yards to the other side of the house, but this did not matter to the roots. They were on the hunt — for life.

As he reflects on this image of tree roots spreading subterraneously out far beyond the reach of the upper limbs, he makes an analogy to the nature of life itself. He says, “the initiative is not planned, or borrowed from outside, but rather seems to be a part of life itself. Indeed, the most fundamental characteristic of life is its search for nourishment.” (14)

This observation about the automatic quality of life is sown into the first parable of the reign of God that Jesus shares with his followers in today’s gospel.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

wheat-whitebackground-iStockHow is this image of a seed growing into a staff of wheat which is then harvested like the reign of God? What are the constitutive elements of the metaphor? Someone — is it God, is it us … can we tell? Seed — again, is that us, or is it an image of the gospel?  The ground on which the seed is cast (is that us?). What does it mean to say that the earth produces of itself, since the earth would not have produced the stalk without the seed? What about the sickle and the harvest? If I’m the wheat, that’s a scary image. If I’m the soil, then the thing growing out of me has been harvested for good and I’m ready to grow again. And, how was this all like the reign of God?

So many ways to read this story, and none of them fit perfectly, so that we have to keep going back and reading, and thinking, and discussing, and trying to fit the elements of the story to their corresponding real-life analogs. I’m drawn to the idea that the reign of God is as if someone (that someone being God) scatters seed (that seed being the gospel, the Word of God, the good news of life’s inevitable liberation from death, which is made most fully visible to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and then sleeps and rises, night and day (which sounds like the first few chapters of Genesis, when the Creator makes something new with each morning and evening and calls it good).

When I imagine the parable’s meaning in this way, I can see my own life as good soil in which the word of God has been planted, and I can imagine that the word of God is Christ Jesus planted in me. So I am in Christ and he is in me, and now I am a new creation, out of which something good and necessary for the world is growing, a stalk of grain which will be harvested to produce the flour that will be baked into the bread that will feed the world. And when we sing, “as the grains of wheat once scattered on the hills were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you” I will remember this parable and I will imagine myself and all of you as the soil out of which this world-feeding bread of life has grown.

Except, in the parable, the sower scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises, and the seed sprouts, and the sower doesn’t know how.  If God is the sower, and the seed is the Word, and we are the ground, then does it make sense to say that God doesn’t understand how the kingdom of God works?

I’m back to square one, and while I’m standing here scratching my head Jesus tells another parable of the reign of God. Now he says it’s like a mustard seed

“which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:31-32)

Bangladeshi children playing in a field of mustard shrubs.

Bangladeshi children playing in a field of mustard shrubs.

Here the reign of God seems explicitly connected to the seed, which grows from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of garden plants — though nothing at all like a majestic sequoias of the Pacific northwest, or even the grand cypress trees native to the Middle East. So, why does Jesus compare the reign of God to something so small which grows into something so modest? No really, I want to know what you think. So, I’m going to give you a few minutes to talk amongst yourselves about how the reign of God is like a mustard seed and Kerry and I will have a similar conversation and then we’ll report back on what we heard.

[Congregation is given a few minutes to talk amongst themselves about how the reign of God is like a mustard seed. Observations are solicited from the assembly about not only the analogies they made, but about the process of deciphering the parable.]

I know some of you hate it when you’re asked to “turn and face your neighbor.” That’s not what you come to church for. The problem is, the parables seem to expect you to have a conversation with someone else.  Jesus introduces the parable of the mustard seed like this:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? (Mark 4:30)

It seems that Jesus expects those who are listening to him and following him to not only listen to and receive his word, but also to take it, shape it, contextualize it and share it with others. And in order to do that, they will need to have a firm grasp on what the reign of God is like, and how it is different from the present world order, and where in our natural and constructed world we might find helpful images that allow us to us engage the hearts and minds of others who are longing for a different kind of existence, for a new creation, but don’t know where to find it.

Kingdom-of-GodJesus says that new creation, that coming world order, is not like the systems that dominate this world through economic and military might, but more like a seed. Something small, whose growth is inevitable, and whose product nourishes and sustains the world — like grain from wheat, or like shade from a mustard shrub. Something small, like a child whose gifts and talents seem to spring from some inner place, which can be nourished and nurtured but not manufactured. Something small, like the decision to include those who have been left out for too long, never knowing what might grow out of that action. Something small, like the choice to buy local, or to recycle bottles and cans, or to support companies that pay a living wage — which do nothing on their own, but change the world when done together.

Anytime we treat our own small lives like they have the power to change the course of history; anytime we act as though the small and overlooked peoples of the earth have as much worth as the rest of humanity; anytime we move children from the margin to the middle; anytime we insist that the pace of change slow down enough to consider the impact on the most negatively affected minority; anytime we remember and act on the reality that each of us is carrying the seed of the God of creation in the soil of ourselves, then the reign of God has drawn near.

And with what will you compare the reign of God when you tell others about it?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 13, 2014: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 25:19-34  +  Psalm 119:105-112  +  Romans 8:1-11  +  Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

As we continue to work our way through the book of Genesis this summer, this morning’s tale begins with rather ominous words. We left off last week with Abraham’s servant being sent to find a wife for his son, Isaac. This week that wife, Rebekah, is pregnant — but it’s not an easy pregnancy. Genesis says, “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘if it is to be this way, why do I live?’” (Gen. 25:22)

Suffering, and searching for answers, Rebekah turns to God in prayer. What she hears in response is hardly comforting however. God says,

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23)

ShowImage.ashxAfter a week like this past one, every preacherly instinct in me wants to stop right there and share with you my heartbreak over all the places in the world where two nations have been so deeply divided that lives are being lost like water being poured out over sand. In Israel and Gaza, where tensions have been rising again since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, bombs dropped by the Israeli Defense Forces over the last five days have injured over 850 Palestinians and killed at least 148, 70% of whom were civilians, many of them children.

Here in the United States we have been watching conflicts along our own southern border worsen, as children from points across Central America make their way north, fleeing poverty and gang violence that are due in no small part to U.S. drug policy both at home and abroad. With President Obama calling for billions of dollars of emergency funds to help speed up deportations of these children, and angry Americans staging protests and blockading busses filled with detained children, things will likely get worse before they get any better.

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided,” says God to Rebekah, reminding us that one of the functions of these stories from Genesis was to explain to the nation of Israel how it was related to neighboring peoples, and how those relationships fell apart. With people of every land and every age, we are left wondering the same thing.

The story continues with Rebekah giving birth to her twins, first to Esau, then Jacob. Jacob, the younger comes into the world grabbing at his elder brother’s heel, seeking to trip him up from the very beginning. Each boy is the favorite of one of his parents: Esau, a hunter and outdoorsman, is his father’s favorite; while Jacob, a quiet man who stayed close to home, has his mother’s favor. In a society in which power and inheritance flowed from father to son, it’s easy to see that Esau is being presented as the model of a man’s man. Furthermore, this family’s story has been dominated by the desire to establish a lineage that would fulfill God’s promise to make of them a great nation. Esau, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, seems like just the man to carry the family name forward.

But that isn’t what happens. Instead the story goes that one day, after coming in from the field, a hungry Esau asks for a bowl of the stew Jacob had been cooking. We’re told that Esau was famished, but not starving. There is no famine in the land yet (though one is coming). Esau’s life is not in danger. He’s a skilled huntsman who could have caught his own meal if things were that bad. When Jacob holds back the bowl of lentils, demanding Esau’s birthright, it’s hard to imagine that his athletic, older brother couldn’t have simply taken it from him, as older brothers are often want to do. So when Esau says, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” I think we’re intended to hear his statement as hyperbole. These are brothers playing games with one another and, like so many family games, this one reveals the dynamics just under the surface.

Jacob wants his older brother’s birthright. You can imagine his resentment at being relegated to second place, coming into the world only minutes after Esau. He knows his father’s story, his grandfather’s story, his legacy and his family’s promised future. Those things matter to him. He wants to play a great part in their saga. Esau, on the other hand, seems indifferent to his inheritance, perhaps in the way that only the entitled can feel. It is his, he assumes forever, so it treats it lightly. He makes oaths he has no intention of keeping. He lives his life in the moment, assuming that what he needs will be provided for him.

These family dynamics are all too familiar, aren’t they? I suspect that if I asked you to turn to your neighbor — which I’m not going to do, but I keep bringing it up, so I think it may just happen some day, but not today.  I’m just warning you so that you’ll be prepared — I suspect that if I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share a story from your own family about sibling rivalries, or parents who played favorites and how that turned out, many of you would have stories to tell. Stories that have shaped how you see yourself in relation to the rest of your family. Stories that have formed you into the person you are today, even when your family is not around.

This particular story from Genesis doesn’t seem to condemn Jacob or Esau, Isaac or Rebekah, it simply describes them. It foreshadows events to come, when this family dynamic will play out once again as Jacob and his mother conspire to steal Esau’s blessing from Isaac as the head of the house lays upon his deathbed. But here we are presented with a snapshot, the kind of story members of a family might tell years later when they look back, trying to understand when it all began to fall apart.

sower_lmauldindsc_0775-760x800In the gospel reading for this morning we get the story of a very different kind of outdoorsman than Esau the hunter. Here Jesus shares a parable about a sower who goes out to plant his seeds, casting them rather indiscriminately onto the path, over rocky ground, among thorn bushes, and into good soil. Predictably, not all the seeds flourish. The seeds that fell on the path got eaten up by birds. The seed that fell on rocky ground grew fast and died fast, since it had weak roots. The seed that grew among the thorns got choked out. Only the seed that fell on good soil produced a harvest — but, oh, what a harvest! Enough grain to feed a multitude.

Jesus then explains his parable to those who’ve been following him. The seed is not God’s favor, nor God’s love. God may be like a parent, but in this story God is not picking favorites. Instead, the seed is “the word of the kingdom” or “the good news of the reign of God.” When that good news is announced, but we are unable to receive it, or can’t understand it, it does not take root. I suppose this could happen for any number of reasons. It may be that we are so preconditioned to look for another kind of kingdom, another kind of reign, that we can barely acknowledge our hope that the world as it is could be anything other than how we’ve always experienced it. The very idea is incomprehensible.

Then there is the the seed that falls on rocky ground. Quickly the plant shoots up, but just as quickly it withers. Jesus compares rocky ground to the person who is overjoyed to hear the proclamation of the gospel, who always knew that God meant the world to be different than this, who has longed to see God’s reign break through into present space and present time, here and now, but lacks that depth to sustain that hope when times get rough. Perhaps they’ve been waiting for a savior who would set the world aright without any call to conversion, without any demand of discipleship, without any cost. Or maybe they were longing for their own liberation, but less interested in the plight of their neighbor. Whatever the case, they are not able to sustain the life of faith, and so it withers before it can bloom.

Jesus describes a third maladaptive environment for the seed’s growth in our lives, when it falls among thorns. This, he says, “is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Matt. 13:22). Rather than greeting the news of God’s reign with joy, this person rightly understands that the kingdom of God is not the kingdom of this world, and that those who benefit from things as they are will likely lose much that they’ve grown to love before they taste the sweetness of the life God intends for us. On balance they are happier with things as they are, even as they suspect that their own wealth bears a cost that others pay.

I suspect Esau was in this third category. He was an inheritor of the promises of God, but he knew that his gain came at his brother’s loss, and that inequality grew to choke the love out of their relationship until the chasm that separated them was as high as any wall and as wide as any river. There they were, two brothers, born from the same parents, created out of the same love, yet divided like nations fighting over a blessing big enough for them both.

And where is God in all of this? Where is God when siblings battle over their parents’ love? Where is God when children leave their families behind to seek safety and a future? Where is God when children are kidnapped and killed, when bombs fall from the sky on the guilty and the innocent alike?

God is like a sower, with an infinite supply of seed, not rationing it out, not apportioning it only to those who have lived lives free from condemnation, not picking favorites, but casting it profligately, carelessly, over all kinds of ground, over all kinds of people, knowing that in the beginning these earthlings, formed from the dust of the ground, bearing the breath of God in their lungs, were gazed upon and called good. Knowing that each of us, in season, will be good soil again. And on that day, the seed will take root and grow into a harvest great enough to feed and bless all our brothers and sisters, of every land and nation, until our checkpoints and our border patrols fall and we are all sitting at the family dinner table again at last.

Praying for that day. Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 24, 2013: Reign of Christ

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6  +  Psalm 46  +  Colossians 1:11-20  +  Luke 23:33-43

Tara arriving in the United States.

Tara arriving in the United States.

My sister was six years old when my family adopted her from Thailand. For six years she’d eaten Thai food, watched Thai television, played with Thai children, and — most importantly — spoken Thai. Imagine yourself at age six: how much you’d already grown, and learned, about who you were and what could be expected from the world around you. Now imagine all of that changing essentially overnight.

My folks and I flew to Bangkok, Thailand and spent about a week getting to know Tara before bringing her home with us. First, a visit to the adoption agency where we spent a few hours together. Then, a sight-seeing day-trip, supervised by her social worker. Finally, an overnight at the guest house where we were staying. Then she was on a plane with us, heading to the United States, where everything was different. The food, the weather, the big house with a private bedroom she didn’t have to share with anyone else, and Jesus.

Tara learned her English in bits and pieces. Names of foods and people and places came first. Simple verbs in the present tense. Our early conversations were very basic, no abstract concepts. “I want pancakes,” or “We go church.” So, when Tara burst forth with her first theological question, it was memorable.

We were sitting around the dinner table preparing to eat with the same prayer I’d been saying every night since I could remember: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen.” Suddenly, Tara asked, “Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

When the apostle Paul writes, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (Col. 1:13) it reminds me of my sister’s experience of coming to the United States — not  in the sense that Thailand was somehow a place of darkness, or the United States an outpost of the reign of Christ. Just that, I have a memory of how hard that transfer was for Tara, every day being surrounded by sights and signs and symbols for things she’d always known and done, but being forced to see them and speak about them in a new way. Even her name was new in this new place.

The same is true for we who bear the name of Christ. We live and move and have our being in a world filled with foods, and rituals and relationships, but we are asked, over and over, to see them and speak about them in a new way. The man who shuffles slowly down the sidewalk, talking to himself, we call brother. The woman whose work is paid under the table, and not well enough to support her family, we call sister. The child whose swagger and swearing is intended to push us away we invite in, and call friend. The water that welcomes us into this house changes our names. The food we eat at this table goes by the name Jesus.

“Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

Paul goes on to say, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15-17)

There’s something ironic to me about the fact that it is Paul, and not Peter or one of the other apostles who had accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.” Paul, who had never laid eyes on Jesus, who was blinded as he traveled the road to Damascus, who heard the voice of Jesus asking him, “why do you persecute me?” This Paul is the one who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.”

Paul knew in his own flesh what it meant to be rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the reign of God. He, who had been a violent opponent of the Jesus movement, who was present at the stoning of the apostle Stephen and approved of his murder, who entered home after home of the church in Jerusalem, and threw its men and women into prison, he was the one God chose to carry the message of reconciliation out from Jerusalem to the far corners of the known world. Someone who had never laid eyes on Jesus.

The reign of God is not like anything we have been taught to expect in this world. The gospel of Luke, which we have been reading throughout this past year, and which we will soon set down as we prepare to begin a new year in the life of the church next week as Advent leads us into the gospel of Matthew, has presented us with parable after parable about the foreignness of God’s reign of forgiveness.  The reign of God is like a father who forgives his son for wasting the family fortune, and welcomes him home with open arms. The reign of God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep alone to go after the one who is lost. The reign of God is like a wealthy man who throws a party, and invites the poor, the blind and the weak to enter his house. Images of the reign of God.

Jesus’ own life has read like one of his parables. After being baptized at the Jordan, and being named God’s Son, the Beloved, Jesus wanders in the wilderness where he is tempted, three times, to use that mantle, that power to distance himself from God’s people. Those three temptations are mirrored again at the end, in the final passage we will hear from Luke’s gospel this year.  Now Jesus is on the cross, and three times he is mocked by those who are killing him, “save yourself!”

They have fundamentally misunderstood him, Jesus, the one whose name means “God saves.” Because he did not come to save himself. He came to save a world full of common criminals. As common as you and me. Even on the cross, in the hour of his death, Jesus looks with mercy on a man who confesses that he is getting exactly what he deserves for his crimes, and says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

But this is the kind of God we have come to know in Jesus. The kind of God who looks at a criminal with compassion, sealing his record so that his sins might be forgiven and he might enter with joy into the paradise of communion with God.

Maybe Paul, who never saw Jesus, but laid eyes on so many who followed him, heard that story, the one about Jesus forgiving the criminal on the cross. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but somehow he went from being the kind of man who persecuted Christians to the kind of man who voluntarily stayed in his prison cell to spare the life of his jailor and to witness to the power of God to heal and transform every place on earth, even the ones we imagine to be God-forsaken — like our prisons, and their execution chambers.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one to people he also had never seen, only heard of through the testimony of the rest of the church as it spread across the Mediterranean. He writes to them to encourage them in their faith, to exhort them to exercise judgment in separating the ways of the world from the ways of Christ Jesus, and to call them to love.  The verses we’ve heard this morning sound an awful lot like a creed, in that they are a series of propositions about who Christ is — the head of the body, the church; the beginning, the firstborn from the dead in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God is reconciling all things, making peace through the cross (Col. 1:18-19).

Language is learned through repetition. We didn’t have a way to answer Tara’s questions, “where Jesus? He hiding?” given the vocabulary she had at the time. All we could do was to keep bringing her to church. Here she began to pick up fragments of songs, phrases that she could remember: “worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God” and “Lord God, lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us.”

Soon she began to understand who Jesus was, where he was, even though she hadn’t seen him. Like Paul hadn’t seen him. Because she saw the cross, and later she spent some time on it, like you and I have. And, oh, what mercy God has shown to each of us in those moments when we have found ourselves in the worst of our suffering — even suffering we can admit, like the criminal who hung next to Jesus, is sometimes the just punishment for our misdeeds. Because God did not send Jesus to save himself, but to save us. To rescue us from solitude and restore us to community. To reconcile us to God and to one another. To bring vision to our downcast eyes by lifting them to the glories of a paradise where all are welcome, regardless of their past or their present. To follow us and to find us and to finally bring us home.

This is Jesus, who is not hiding, but is with us. Now and forever. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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