Sunday, August 13, 2017

Go Out and Tell Somebody!

Scripture Romans 10:5-15     (NRSV) 

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

A Message From General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens: 
Sisters and brothers, my heart breaks at the violence this weekend in Charlottesville – the loss of life, the dishonoring of children of God, the vile insults hurled and the wounds of history reopened.  I pray for the family of the woman who died. I pray in praise of the peaceful demonstrators. We cannot take backward steps fueled by hatred. We cannot be silent when the humanity of black persons is being assaulted and terrorized.  

The commandment in 1 John 4:20 calls us to account:  "Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

And so let us love one another as we love God. With such love, we are compelled to stand for justice, and walk in peace.

Yesterday I attended the Appreciation Luncheon that Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life put on for Pastor Seth Pankratz, who is moving back to Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  At my table were several other local pastors, and one of them asked, “Have you preached on what’s going on in the news?” referring to the situation with North Korea.  We discussed the wisdom China had shown in their response, and we all agreed that this situation is truly terrifying, but that we hadn’t yet said anything from the pulpit except to lift up prayers for peace.  We began to talk about the news from just that morning, the violent clashes at the White Supremacist Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We knew, by that time, that a State of Emergency had been declared, which most often means martial law, with curfews imposed and the National Guard patrolling the streets.  We agreed that such displays of hatred are antithetical to the gospel message, but then the “Roasting and Toasting” part of the program began so we abandoned our conversation. 

Theologian Karl Barth said that we should always preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  I usually don’t.  Not because I don’t think it’s important to respond to what’s going on in the world, but because it is much too easy to think that my own prejudices and opinions are in perfect alignment with the gospel.  I try not to get all “preachy” at you about those things, mostly because I tend to believe that if I say, “Love one another means love everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, nationality, etc,  etc., etc.” then I have as good as said, “Hey y’all.  Racism is bad.  Heterosexism is bad. Misogyny is bad. Hating anyone is bad.”  And so on, and so on. I think by using this generalization I have let you know that none of these things align with the commandment to love one another as we love ourselves.  The thing is, I haven’t named those things out loud. I have only hinted at them.  You see, I assume you all can read your Bibles and come to the right conclusion.  Which is wrong headed of me, because lots of people read their Bibles and come to entirely different conclusions than I do!  

My brother read 2 Thessalonians 3:8, “We didn’t eat anyone’s food without paying for it.  Instead we worked night and day with effort and hard work so that we would not impose on you.” and decided that it meant there shouldn’t be anything like welfare or food stamps.  (Not true, in case you were wondering.). Growing up I was taught that some people are black because they are descended from Ham, and that every bad thing that happened to them was punishment for Ham uncovering Noah’s nakedness while he was drunk.  Paul’s letter to Philemon and portions of his other letters were seen as justification for slavery.  And I don’t have to tell you that there are many Christians who believe that women shouldn’t have any position of authority, in the church or outside of it, because Paul said so.   Or how our LGBTQ sisters and brothers are rejected, assaulted and even killed because of those “clobber passages” that so many of our Christian sisters and brothers like to quote.

And it’s easy for me to say, “Well, if they believe that it’s ok to hate then they aren’t really Christian.”  But that’s totally judgmental and I’m not sure it’s an accurate statement.  Because . . . 

In 1986 a family moved from Denver, Colorado to White City, Florida.  Mom, Dad, a son who was going to be on the high school football team and a cute daughter.  When they first moved in two doors down from me I went to their house and took a gift of some bread and salt to welcome them to the neighborhood. They were nice people.  They happened to be black.  A couple of nights later my next door neighbor also dropped by to let them know how welcome they were.  He and his friends were wearing their best white robes and carrying a large wooden cross, some gasoline and matches.  Now, you need to know that my neighbor and his family were faithful members of the Southern Baptist Church around the corner. Their kids went to Christian school.  They both taught Sunday School and always contributed generously to the food pantry downtown.  They would have been terribly upset to hear that I didn’t think much of their brand of Christianity.  Because they were good people - except for that one thing. Except for that racism thing.  And I figured that they would have to work that out with God eventually, just as I and everyone else will have to work out our sins with God eventually.  

The thing is, though, that one thing, that racism thing, and that xenophobic thing, and that anti-Semetic thing that were so evident yesterday aren’t just sins that hurt the person who is guilty of the sin.  They aren’t like gluttony or sloth or lust.  These sins and all of the other hate-type sins, hurt and even kill other people.  Heather Heyer, a 32 year old paralegal, died yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, because someone was so filled with hate that he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors on purpose, to kill somebody.   And there’s a good chance that the driver of that car, like so many of the Klansmen and other White Supremacists present at that rally yesterday, and like my neighbor in Florida, was Christian.   Too many of these are Christians for whom the love commandments - the love one another and love your neighbor and love your enemy commandments - lose something in translation when they are faced with someone whose skin is a different color, or speaks a different language, or follows a different religion.

The Jesus I believe in loves all persons.  The God who sent Jesus to save us, to heal us, loves all persons.  Like in that children’s song . . . 
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  
Jesus loves the little children of the world.  
We are all of us little children, to God.  But not everyone believes in a God of love.  There are those - many - who believe in a judgmental God, an angry God, in that Old Testament God who demanded the deaths of every living being in the cities of Canaan when Joshua brought the exiles into that land.  

 … how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” 

My brothers and sisters, I titled this sermon “Go out and Tell Someone” weeks ago, and the plan, my plan, was to speak about evangelism, to encourage you to go out and speak to your friends and your neighbors about Jesus, about Church.  About this congregation, and the good we do in our community, and about worshipping God in community.  I wanted to send you out to speak to your friends who are not believers, or who are believers who have slipped away and now feel isolated.  And I wanted you to bring them back. I wanted you to bring them home to Jesus.   And then Charlottesville happened.     

I still want you to go out and tell somebody, but I want you to tell them about the love of God for all persons.  ALL persons!  You know - All means ALL!?  And I want you to talk frankly about racism when you see it.   And I want you to speak out against hate, when you hear it.  Because hate isn’t one of those sins that just affects the sinner.  It affects everyone.  Everyone!  I want you to go out in love, to speak with your friends and your neighbors and your enemies, about the love of God.   

But how are we supposed to love our enemies, Pastor?  How are we supposed to love people who hate us?  That’s way hard.  Yes.  Yes, it is.  But here is what I was taught, and what we teach everyone who comes into 12 Step programs.  I might dislike someone.  I might distrust them. I might even hate them. (And if I do, I really need to work on that!)  But regardless of how I feel about them, when they are in need, I am there for them.  When they are in pain, I am there for them.  When they don’t know where to turn in their distress and difficulty, I am there for them.  Whether I like them or not.  Even if they had hurt me in the past.  That’s love.  That’s what God requires of me.  

How can they call on someone in whom they had not believed?”  They can’t.  So we have to teach them.  We have to speak our truth, the truth of God’s love and care for all persons.  Even the haters.  

The Good News - and there is Good News, even today - is that God does, in fact, love everyone.  And that you, each of you, are beautiful in God’s eyes, and you become even more beautiful when you speak God’s love.  For “how beautiful are the feet [and every other part!] of those who bring the good news.   

I would invite you now to come forward, if you are ready to be baptized, or if you are seeking a church home, and want to be part of Christ’s family here at First Christian Church, this family created in love, who believe in our hearts that God loves all persons. 

And then, my sisters and brothers, go out and tell someone that they are beautiful, and beloved, and a child of God.  Go out and tell them to leave behind their hatred, and fear, and anger, and come in to the light of God’s love.  Go out singing of God’s love - for we have a story to tell the nations - a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.  Let us sing.


A word about the artwork - This is a depiction of the Barmen Declaration Banner.  The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934  was a document (written mostly by Karl Barth) and adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany who opposed the German Christian movement. In the view of the delegates to the Synod that met in the city of Barmen in May, 1934, the German Christians had corrupted church government by making it subservient to the state and had introduced Nazi ideology into the German Protestant churches that contradicted the Christian gospel.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wrestling Pros(e)

Genesis 32:22-31        (NRSV)

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel [which means “Face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Jacob.  Arguably one of the most important characters in the Bible, the person through whom God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Father of the 12 Tribes of Israel.    But not one of my favorite people at all.  He seemed to be a bit of a wuss, really.  And he was devious.  His mother talked him into cheating his slightly older twin brother Esau out of their father’s blessing.  Then he ran away because he was afraid of his brother.  He worked for Laban for 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved, Rachel, only to discover on his wedding night that Laban had substituted her older sister, Leah, for his expected bride.  OK.  So he worked another 7 years to earn Rachel.   When he wanted to go home, Laban agreed to give him all the spotted or striped goats as his wages, then removed all those from the flocks and sent them away with his sons.  So Jacob made sure to breed the remaining flocks in such a way as to produce lots of striped or spotted kids.  After 6 years of this, his flocks had increased greatly, so that they actually were stronger and more numerous than Laban’s.  This was upsetting Laban’s sons, so he left secretly with his wives and his flocks while Laban was away shearing sheep.   There was eventually a confrontation, in which God intervened, so Jacob and his wives and children and flocks were allowed to go on their way.  When he came close to the land of his father, where his brother was now the head of the family, he began to worry that Esau just might be holding a grudge.  So he sent an apology in advance, and bribes, and divided his people and his flocks in two so that, if things went poorly for him when he encountered Esau, at least half of them could escape.  Although he kept both wives and concubines and all 11 children with him, and I imagine they would have been killed or enslaved if things went really poorly, so I’m not sure who would have benefited from the escape of half the flocks.   

The night before he anticipated encountering Esau he sent his family ahead, across the fording place over the river, while he stayed behind, perhaps to pray.  Because one thing Jacob was very faithful about - dedication to his God.  While in a foreign land, he prayed to his God, the God of Abraham.  He had taught his wives to love God, and they were quick to give God praise when they were blessed with children.  Even in a time when most gods people believed in were pretty local in nature, ruling over one land or city or even one aspect of life or nature,  Jacob understood that his God was the God of his entire people, and not limited to any particular place.  So he often turned to God to ask for guidance.

On this night, when Jacob was alone and waiting for the morning’s confrontation, a man came and they wrestled.   As far as I know, this is the first recorded wrestling match, taking place some 1,100 years before the first Greek Olympics.    I like wrestling.   I became a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling when I was dating Jimmy Chekowski, the star of our high school wrestling team.   Last year, when the Selma High School girl’s wrestling team was recognized for their excellence at a City Council meeting I was amazed and delighted to learn that girl’s wrestling is a recognized sport.  And even more excited to learn that our girls are acknowledged champions in that sport!  Wrestling requires strength, skill, and determination.  And, in the case of professional wrestling, acting skill.   I was introduced to professional wrestling in the 1970s, and watched in amazement as such luminaries as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Jake the Snake, Hulk Hogan, and Andre the Giant entered the ring, representing the forces of Good or Evil.  At first I was shocked!  This was not beautiful, like the wrestling I was used to.  It was violent!  It all looked so real!  Eventually I learned that these matches are pretty carefully choreographed, and each move is carefully planned, like the staged fights in movies, so that the participants are usually only injured by accident.   That wasn’t the case with Jacob. 

In Jacob’s case, there were no rules.  No care was taken to make sure no one was injured.  Jacob was by no means stronger than his opponent, but he was stubborn enough to refuse to give up, even after his hip was dislocated.  He prevailed in his struggle, and was given the name “Israel” which means “The one who strives with God,” because his struggle that night was way more than just two guys wrestling.    

Jacob was about to face something he had run away from over 20 years earlier.  His history was that of a man who acquiesced to whatever someone else demanded of him - his mother, his father-in-law, his wives.  But now he was going to have to face his brother.  And he was really not good at confrontation.  But God said, “Go home,” and going home meant facing his fears.  Jacob wrestled with his fears that night.  Torn between what he wanted to do and what God wanted him to do, he spent that night wrestling.   And although he prevailed, in that he didn’t give up until he learned the name of the person he contended with, the one who truly prevailed was God, because Jacob went on to face his fear - the brother he had wronged so long ago.  

We all wrestle with God at one time or another.  When things go wrong, we might blame God.   While preparing for a funeral some 10 years back, I spent time with the son of the woman we were burying.  He had stopped coming to church several years earlier, when his teenaged son was killed by a drunk driver.  He hadn’t been able to forgive God for letting it happen.  He was still wrestling with his son’s death last year, when we placed a boutonniere for his son on an empty chair at his daughter’s wedding.   I don’t know how long his wrestling match with God will take, but I know he is still engaged in the process.  And that’s a good thing, that he is still engaged ion the struggle, that he hasn’t give up.  We struggle with God whenever we see ugliness, or encounter hatred, or face cruelty and inhumanity.  How can God let that happen?  How can racism still exist, when we all know that the only actual difference between the races is literally skin deep?   How can God allow one person to murder another because of gender or orientation or ethnicity?  How can God allow parents to abuse their children?  How can anyone be permitted to deliberately injure a helpless kitten or puppy?  We find ourselves wrestling with the commandment to “Love One Another” when that other seems to be manifestly unlovable.   

And like Jacob, we find ourselves wrestling with God when the thing that we know we are supposed to do is really hard to do.  Almost everyone I know who has been called to the ministry tried to fight the call.  Most of us spend some time wondering if we are doing the right thing.  It happens with teachers, police, public defenders, social workers - everyone who has embraced a calling that is about helping others.   I’m pretty sure it happens in lots of occupations and vocations.  We love the work, but there are days in each of our lives when we have to wonder if we made the right choice.  That’s why we take vacations, and sabbaticals and go on retreats.  I imagine there are even days when parents have the same struggle.  I’m pretty sure that the day my mother turned her back on two toddlers for just a minute while she was baking bread may have been one of those  “And I thought having children was a good idea, why?” moments. 

It’s a good thing when we wrestle with God, and when we wrestle with our faith, and when we wrestle with our own character traits that maybe are less than lovable.   Look at Jacob.  He was not the best human who ever lived.  He had some serious character flaws and weaknesses.   But he also had good traits, chief among them his faith that God was with him no matter what.  He fought with God - in his case, physically! - and survived. More than survived.  He was rewarded greatly.  Through him, God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  Jacob, Israel, became the actual father of the Twelve Tribes.  Even though he was worried and imperfect.  Just like us.  

My brothers and sisters, the Good News today is twofold.  First, God is always with us, especially when we are wrestling with God, with our faith, and with ourselves.  Second, you are loved, just the way you are.   Go out from this place knowing that.   No matter who you are, you are loved, and God is with you.  Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

God's Garden

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23      (NRSV)  

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this 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. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


I know.  I have the scriptures out of order again.  Believe me, it hurts me worse than it hurts you to preach out of lectionary order.  It’s especially obvious this week since this scripture already showed up in your bulletins (but wasn’t preached) on the day Hector and Cindy’s baby boy was born.  But July has been kind of weird, schedule wise, and quite frankly, I love this photo so much I had to use this scripture to go with it.   

This is a photo I took while I was at Camp Tamarack the other week.  On Wednesday, the day I left because I don’t do altitude well at all, at all…  the campers hiked 3 miles to get to this place from the camp.  I rode up in a 4 wheel drive extended cab pickup, with the sack lunches.   The other chaplain looked at some trees growing out of a crack in the rocks and said “I’m going to use that for my sermon on seeds on rocky soil.”  I liked his idea so that I told him I was going to steal it, and took a pic of the same trees … but then I saw this even BETTER example, because this one little tree was totally dead growing out of a rock, and right behind it were huge big trees growing in good soil.   I’m going to guess that the other little tree will die eventually.

Another advantage of preaching out of sequence is that I get to read other people’s sermons on the same passage before I write mine.   My friend Bob Cornwall, pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan,  preached on this passage last week and talked about the assumption that this parable is about what happens when we speak the Word - either in sermons or in conversation with another person.   And that the good seed bearing fruit is what happens when that other person goes out and tells people who are in turn convinced, and turn their lives over to Jesus.    But this time around, Bob said, he had a different thought about this parable. What if, he asks, this parable is about God and the way in which God works in our lives?

Bob also had some questions about the way the farmer planted, because in the parable it seems like he’s just sort of randomly scattering seed so that it falls on rocks and a beaten path and a thorny patch, and hopefully also in good dirt, which is what eventually produces a good harvest.   Bob questioned why the farmer didn’t go out and carefully prepare the soil, and carefully place the seeds in little individual holes, as we do when we are planting a back yard garden.  This, of course, was a rhetorical question, because Bob knows the reality of 1st century farming techniques as well as I do.  The farmer in Jesus’ day was preparing the fields with what effectively was a long stick with a sword on the end of it.  He may or may not have had an animal (or a strong son) to pull that plow.  He surely didn’t have a  big old John Deere tractor and all the amazing farm equipment we have today.  He didn’t even have a Rototiller.   

When I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I noticed that when our neighbor planted seeds in the field we leased to him there was always a big patch in the middle of the field that didn’t produce any wheat.  There was a rock there that was simply too big to remove without dynamite, so he just lifted the plow when he went over it.   And when it was time to plant, it was easier to just drive his tractor over it and waste some seeds that to try not to drop them in that particular spot.   My neighbor may not have been scattering seeds by hand, but even with careful preparation and  the state of the art New Holland farm machinery he used, some seeds went on the rocks, and some went along the edge of the fields where there was a path we used between farms, and some went into a patch of wild blackberries (yum).   Imagine how much harder it would have been to control where seeds went when they were just flung out by hand, onto soil that was prepared by hand.  

And imagine if the sower of the seeds didn’t care where they fell?  What if the sower of the seeds scattered them so that every kind of ground received seeds, without worrying about whether they grew exactly where they were planted or not?  Let’s look at the parable just a little differently. 

Consider the seeds that fell on the pathway and were picked up by birds.  Now, because we are people who pay attention to science, we know that birds are responsible for things like the variety of plants that grow on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, islands that rose out of the ocean floor as a result of volcanic eruption.   Left to themselves, these islands would be barren.  There wouldn’t be anything there but volcanic rock.  But over time the rock eroded away to become soil, and birds flying over left deposits, in which there were undigested seeds, which grew in the mineral rich soil, creating an island with a variety of plants that shouldn’t be there.  Seeds don’t necessarily grow where they are planted.   Somehow the Word one person heard, even though it didn’t take with them, may be heard by someone else, someone ready to hear it.

And what about the seeds that fell into the blackberry bushes?  They certainly had a harder time of it, and they would have been almost impossible to harvest. I mean, why go into a thorny patch for a few stalks of wheat?  But you know, the stalks that were left behind in the thorny patch dropped their own seeds, and grew new wheat the next year, and the next.  Until eventually, new stalks of wheat grew beyond the thorns, and into the field, and were able to be harvested.  The Word is still there, in that thorny patch, still growing.  It just isn’t ready yet to accept God’s love.  It might take a while, as it did with me.  But eventually the Word, that seed that was planted so long ago did bring me back into the arms of God.  

And the seed that fell on rocky soil.  I do love these pictures.   In one, a tiny tree is clearly dead, unable to grow in the cleft in the rock where the seeds from a pine cone fell.  There is another little tree next to it that will probably suffer the same fate.  But over here, over in this other rock - look at the size of this tree!  Look at the trunk, how big it is.  Even though it is growing out of a rock, this is a big tree.  And while it is clearly beginning to die (bark beetles got to this one, too, unfortunately), it has produced harvest after harvest of pine cones, ready to drop their seeds elsewhere.  Maybe some bounced over the edge to fall far down below - which is why all of my pictures were taken from a safe distance back!  Maybe some were picked up by birds, or blown away by the winds, or washed down off the rocks by rain.  But whatever seeds fell on this particular rocky ground grew and prospered and produced more seeds.  And maybe some of those healthy trees in the good soil a bit further down the mountain come from this tree.  Maybe the Word that grew here, where it shouldn’t grow at all, has taken on new life somewhere else.

We are God’s garden.  All of us.  All of humanity.  Yes, there are individuals that don’t accept the Word, like the seeds that fall on the rocks, or that pathways, or in the thorn bushes.  But that doesn’t mean that the Word doesn’t grow somewhere else simply because that person was exposed to it.  That doesn’t mean that the person who hears it one day, and rejects it, won’t come to accept it later.   God drops the seeds of God’s love into every human heart.    Every person, no matter who, no matter where, is beloved by and precious to God.  

And we, as Christians, are also God’s gardeners.  God gives us opportunities every day to “preach the Word” through our actions.  We don’t have to go out into the world telling everyone the Good News of Jesus Christ like preachers or theologians.  But we do have to go out into the world acting the Good News, like Christians.   We do have to go out into the world being the seeds God is planting in others.  Maybe those seeds will take and germinate and grow where they are planted, and maybe they won’t.  That’s kind of not our business.  Our business is just to make sure that everyone we meet will know we are Christian, not because we are wearing a cross, and not because we can quote the Bible, and not because we tell them about Jesus.  But because we act in love.  Because we treat others well, as we would like to be treated.  Because we reach out to help, where help is needed, and not expected.  Because we serve others without expecting rewards or recognition.    

My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us take with us the seeds of God’s love.  Let us scatter those seeds on every kind of ground, in every situation, whether we think it will take or not, whether we think it will grow or not.  Let us go out and love one another, as Jesus commanded us to do, planting God’s garden with acts of love and service.   

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's as clear as mud

Matthew 13: 44-52

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Before we begin, I want to warn those of you who follow the lectionary and anyone who maybe already heard one sermon today, that because of some scheduling weirdnesses I have switched the readings for this week and next week.  So come back next week for the parable of the seeds.   And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  

I have a question for the teachers.  And the parents, who are also teachers, after all.  Does it ever happen that you explain a fairly complex concept to your students (or your child), ask them if they understood, and get lots of head nodding to go with the glazed over expressions on their faces?   I know I do that sometimes, mostly to get the explanation over with.  Like when one of my geek friends starts speaking computerese in great detail.  I can sort of follow, but not well enough to really get what they are saying.  So I nod sagely and hope they will be finished soon.  If I know them really well I might confess that I understand all the words they are using, but can’t follow the order in which they are arranged.  

So, Jesus tells some parables and asks his audience, “Have you understood this?”  And they all say “Yes.”  As I read through them I wondered what Jesus’ reaction would be if I put my hand up and said, “Um, no, not really.”   I mean, I can guess at what they mean and speak to meanings that sound right to me.  But what Jesus meant by them is not necessarily something I can say “yes” to without doing some serious study.  What they would have meant to a person living 20 centuries ago may not be anything like what we understand them to mean.  So, I turn to theologians to see what on earth Jesus was talking about.  (Specifically, I will be referring to Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, pp 284-288) 

Because Jesus was absolutely talking about earthly stuff.  The kingdom of heaven is a phrase Jesus used to describe living in God’s will here and now, not a place where we hope to end up later.  

Both the parables of the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great price are about merchants. The first thing we need to know is that in Jesus’ time merchants were regarded with about as much respect as we traditionally give to used car salesmen.  The first one found a treasure in a field, and sold off all his other possessions in order to buy that one field.   We do have to ask ourselves what he was doing digging around in someone else’s field . . .and why he kept the finding of the treasure a secret from the person whose field it was.  Not especially honest, but definitely in keeping with the 1st century opinion of merchants in general.   The second merchant sold off all he owned in order to possess one, perfect pearl.  His actions were not dishonest, but certainly not at all merchant-like, as he now has nothing to sell, so he is effectively out of business.   As is the first merchant, who has sold everything he had in order to obtain the treasure he found.  These two merchants have behaved in a manner contrary to the ways of the world, in which profit is more important than anything.  To them, the treasure they have found is worth more than everything else they might possess, so they have given up everything, even their means of making a living, possibly even their homes and families, in order to possess that thing.  

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live differently than what is expected of people living in the Roman empire.  It is to break with convention, as these two merchants have done.  

Another parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like a net cast wide, which catches everything.  Today’s net fishermen do the very same thing the ancient fishermen did - they separate what they can sell from everything else.  Some of what is left they use for bait, some they take home for their families to eat, some they just toss out of the boat so other fish can eat it.   Jesus says that at the end of days, this separation of good and bad will be done by the angels, with the evil being thrown into the fire.  The prophets speak of the end times as a time when a fire like that of a refiner will cleanse the evil from God’s people, as does the Book of Revelation.  (Both of which are subjects for another time.)  The point Jesus makes in this parable, according to the theologians I read, is that judgment is not our job, but the job of those angels appointed by God to make those decisions at the end of days.   This is a concept familiar to us from Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  Hard to do, not judging.  Another thing that is opposite of what society expects.  Pretty much everything Jesus directs us to do is the opposite of what society expects.

As an example of the difference between what is expected or normal in our society and what is not. . . The TV show Survivor puts people in difficult environments, in usually very primitive conditions, in which they will compete with each other to win a large amount of money.  Unlike a race or sporting event where skill is a major determining factor in winning, this competition typically rewards the most devious and underhanded of the contestants.   This program and its predecessor Big Brother have spawned a plethora of other “reality” shows, which show humanity at its worst.  Another “reality” type program, which sadly didn’t last long, was “Who wants to be a Superhero?”.  Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics, produced this program which expected people to be the very best people they could be.  In one episode the contestants were told they must complete a task in a certain amount of time in order to stay in the competition.  On their way to the finish line each of them passed a crying child.  Anyone who continued past that child without stopping to help was dropped, because according to Stan Lee, no superhero would ever put winning a contest ahead of helping a crying child.   You cannot imagine the shock on the faces of those who finished the race in time, but passed by that child.  This is so opposite to what society expects that I can’t help but see it as an example - a parable, if you will - of the kingdom of heaven.   The fact that Survivor has lasted 34 seasons to date (17 years!) and Who Wants To Be A Superhero lasted only 2 seasons is, I think, a rather sad commentary.  

And Jesus says, “Do you understand?”  Receiving a yes - and maybe now I can also say yes - he goes on to say that those who are scribes (students) trained for the kingdom of heaven are like those who value both their old and their new treasures.  The old is the Law and the Prophets, and the new is the teaching Jesus brings, which builds upon the old.   There are those who believe that only the New Testament is necessary for Christians to study, but seriously, doing that is like trying to understand calculus without first mastering basic arithmetic and algebra.  

You know, I used to think that these parables were all about the treasure and the pearl - that it was their value that was being likened to the kingdom of God. That was easy.  Faith is like a pearl or a treasure - it is something more precious than anything else we might have!  That would be easy to preach.  It wouldn’t have  occurred to me that it was what the merchants did to obtain those things - behaving in a way completely contrary to social expectation - that was the kingdom.   I used to think that the description of what the angels were doing was about heaven and hell.  I didn't realize that this parable is really Jesus warning us against a very common behavior - judging others - that we are to avoid.   And frankly, the discussion of old and new treasures simply confused me, until I learned that Jesus was speaking of old and new knowledge.  

Behaving in a manner opposite to the expectation of the society in which we live is incredibly difficult.  Doing the right thing may seem counter-intuitive, like stopping to comfort a crying child in the middle of a timed race.   

Another example is something I experienced just this past week.  I spent part of the week at Camp Tamarack, which is staffed entirely by volunteers.  So in a modern parable, the kingdom of heaven is a young married man who had no vacation time and took a week off work anyway to sleep in a tents and shower in an unheated bathroom and work with the children he’d never met, some of whom have developmental challenges.  And spend his own money to design and buy materials for a solar oven so he could teach them science-y stuff.  That just doesn’t make sense to most people.  Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is the 50+ woman who walked away from her one-woman business for two weeks to work without pay, standing on her feet from 6 am until past 8 pm, cooking for 30 or more people.   May we all find ways to live in the kingdom of heaven, to behave in a way society doesn't understand.

We have some people going to Camp Tamarack this week.  Jessica and Michael are going as counselors - they will have left yesterday.  Several of our youth are going as campers.  Could you come forward please, so we can bless you on your way?  

Commissioning of Campers
WE of the congregation want those of you going to camp to grow in your faith as Jesus grew in his faith.
We hope that you will grow in the spirit of God and bear fruit that reflects the kingdom of heaven.
We want you to learn the lessons of nature that Jesus taught.
We remember the contributions of the individuals who make the camp and conference program possible; the time, the imagination and the money that comes from people in this and other congregations. 
We hope your experience at camp will go well.  Hold us in your prayers as we will hold you in our prayers.
May your time at camp be fruitful and fun and spirit filled, from the first day until the last.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Romans 6:12-18, 20-25
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Message begins with video of Richie Havens singing "Freedom/Motherless Child"

I spent the summer after high school graduation in a town on the Jersey Shore.   I had seen posters around town for a 3-day music and arts festival, and I would have liked to go but I didn’t have the $12 admission fee, or any way to get to upstate New York where the event was being held.   By the evening of the first day of the event, the tv news was beginning to tell the story of an unprecedented event - a folk rock festival that had attracted so many people the traffic closed the New York State Thruway!  On August 13, 1969, 400,000 people descended on Max Yazgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York and created an event that has never been successfully repeated.  The music was supposed to start at a certain time, but the artists were being held up by the traffic jams.  Richie Havens was finally convinced to go on stage without his back up band, just him and his guitar.  The band members joined him on stage as they arrived.  Almost 3 hours later, he had run out of things to play but the crowd wouldn’t let him leave the stage.  So he improvised, and wrote a new song on the spot, building it around the well known spiritual, “Motherless Child”.   That song, “Freedom”, became an anthem to the Woodstock generation  - which is not an actual thing with dates and such.  It’s more like a cultural sub-group of the Baby Boomers.  

The freedom of the Woodstock generation was not the kind of freedom that Paul speaks of in his letter to the churches in Rome.   We saw it as freedom from rules, freedom from doing things the way our parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to the Dark Ages had done things.  We saw it as freedom from the restrictions of social mores and freedom to do things the way we wanted to.  There were new art forms and new musical forms and new fashions and new attitudes.   “If it feels good, do it!” we said.  We wanted to tear down the establishment and make something entirely new.  We didn’t know what we wanted to replace the establishment with, but we knew we wanted to be rid of it.   We rejected religion as we knew it and went seeking spirituality in different ways.  We were Jesus Freaks and Hari Krishnas and New Agers and Spiritual Not Religious.  We thought everything old was bad, and everything new was good.   And this, Freedom, was our song.  It resonated so strongly because we really did feel like motherless children, like rudderless boats, alone, a long way from home.   We embraced our freedom to be ourselves, and our freedom imprisoned us.  

In a way, the freedom of the Woodstock generation was one of the kinds of freedom Paul speaks of - freedom from righteousness, which is to say, slavery to sin.   Some of us grew out of it rather quickly.  Some of us took longer, like 20 years or so.  Some haven’t yet.   But for those of us who did, eventually, find our way back into the light, as it were, we have discovered true freedom, the freedom that comes with God’s grace, and obedience to God’s desires. 

Paul’s question was deadly serious.  If we are no longer under the Law, does that mean we are free to sin?  To do anything we want to do?  No.  When adherence to the Law of Moses ceased to be a requirement for new Christians, this became an important conversation.  Just because you are not required to obey all the rules about diet and sacrifice and circumcision, to name a few, that  does not mean that you get to do whatever you like.  You may eat whatever you like, yes.  But you must share your food with those who have none, because that is how to love your neighbor.  You don’t have to make all the sacrifices listed in Torah, or go through all the cleansing rituals required after childbirth and after you are healed of skin ailments and so on, but you also don’t get to go participate in the rituals at pagan temples, no matter how much fun they might be.  You aren’t held to the rules about marriage and concubinage and divorce and such, but you are expected to behave with sexual morality, being faithful to your spouse, and not just sleeping around with whomever.   Just because the old laws are no longer binding on you, that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you like.  Because now you must be obedient to God, and not to your own desires.   Now you must dedicate yourself to loving your neighbor, and that is a whole lot harder than just saying, “I love everybody!” and handing them a flower.  

Paul said, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.”  We did not understand what that meant, that the wages of sin is death.  We thought it meant literal death, and frankly, we liked what James Dean had said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”    Some of us, like me, eventually learned that the death Paul speaks of is not death of the body, but death of the soul.  On the day that I realized there was nothing inside me anymore, that I was filled with emptiness, that my freedom had enslaved me to a life of pain and torment and emptiness, that is the day I decided to change my life.  Sometime later, after I had begun making the changes, I began to welcome God back into my life.  I became willing to submit my will to God’s will.  And that is when I began to be truly free, in the way Paul speaks of freedom.   I still love this “Freedom/Motherless Child” song, but today i understand freedom in a totally different way, and I no longer feel like a motherless child. 

On this Freedom and Democracy Sunday, when we are encouraged to mediate on the freedoms we have as persons living in the United States, let us also meditate on the freedoms we have as Christians, as people obedient to the will of God.  Let us celebrate God’s unfailing goodness, and forgiveness, and God’s great and awesome power.  Let us go out from this place celebrating our freedoms, both as citizens of this mighty nation, and as citizens of God’s kingdom on earth, loving all our neighbors as God loves us.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Where's the Love?

Scripture Reading Matthew 10:32-39   (NRSV)  

32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36  and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This is one of those passages that has most of us going, “Wait, what? A sword?  Jesus, where’s the love?”  I mean, Jesus’ whole ministry is about telling everyone to love one another, and he gives really specific instructions as to how to do that. And then he says, “I’m not a peace bringer.  No, I am bringing a sword.  If you do what I say, you will be at odds with everyone, even your own family.”  For just a minute, I can see the disciples - especially Simon the Zealot, who had been part of a violent revolutionary movement before joining Jesus - saying, “Alright, Yeah!  This is the Messiah we’ve been expecting.  Let’s go get those Romans!”    For a minute there it sounds like that turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemy Jesus who has had them completely confused up to this point has all of a sudden become the militant descendent of David that everyone has been expecting for oh, so very long.   “Yes, Jesus!  Hold that thought!   I need to go get my sword!”

And yet, as we all know, Jesus wasn’t talking about a violent revolution against the political reality of his time.  He was talking about radical resistance to the way things were.  He was talking about standing up for the ways of God instead of sitting still for the ways of humanity.   He was talking about being willing to tell everyone where they were going wrong with their practice of religion, and dealing with the fall-out.   

In Matthew 5, right after preaching the Beatitudes, Jesus tells those assembled that if they are on their way to the Temple with an offering or a sacrifice, and they have been having an argument with another person, their sacrifice will be unacceptable to God unless they reconcile their differences with that other person first.   “Wait, what?  It’s more important to make up with that rotten person who did me wrong than to take my offering to the Temple?  But they did me wrong!  They need to make up with me!”  No, not really.  Your actions are all that you have any control over.  You have to make the effort to reconcile.  God will deal with the other person.   

And right after that, Jesus says,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Love your enemies?   Wait.  What about revenge?  Aren’t we supposed to get revenge when someone does us wrong?  No. That’s a ways-of-the-world thing, not a ways-of-God thing.  Forgive, so that you may also be forgiven.   He said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”   Hmmm.  OK, Jesus.  I get it.  What’s the point of being a follower of Jesus if I act just like everybody else?  

Then he goes on to tell the assembled listeners not to pray out loud in front of everyone so they will admire your piety, and don’t give money where everyone can see you so they can admire your generosity, and don’t work at becoming wealthy so that everyone can look up to you and so that you can have all the stuff that everyone else wants   All of these instructions fly in the face of what is normal.   All of these instructions will lead anyone following them into conflict with pretty much everybody around them.  They are also really hard to follow.

Consider one of the people we know of who did follow these instructions.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent revolution in order to gain civil rights for African Americans.  He took that whole “turn the other cheek, love your enemy” thing seriously, and although his resistance to the ways of the world got him killed, it also succeeded in bringing change.  In laws, only, not in hearts.  Hearts take longer.

I want to tell you that it is really difficult not to react when violence is offered.  Back in the early 1970’s I participated in some non-violent anti-war demonstrations.   We would gather in a park, listen to some speeches, then stand in a huge circle, link arms, and sing folk songs.  Most of the time no one really bothered us, but a few times there were folks who violently disagreed with us.  One time some of them threw rocks.  It’s not easy to stand there singing songs while someone is throwing rocks at you. It’s even harder not call them names, or to pick up the rocks and throw them back - or at least, it was for me.  But that’s what Jesus expects of us.  That we will stand peacefully for what we believe to be the right, and not engage in the violent rhetoric and violent acts that come so much easier to humans.   That we will be like Dr. King, and stand up to the powers that oppose the ways of the Lord. 

So, what’s with the whole sword thing, then?   Jesus didn’t really mean that we should take out swords and use violence against oppression, or those who oppose us.  You will remember that when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, “51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:51-52).  No, Jesus meant that when we stand up for the ways of the Lord, there will be many who oppose us.   We won’t just be able to say, “Love one another,” and watch the world change.  Because when we say, “Love one another,” we aren’t talking about simply being sweetness and light to everyone.  We are talking about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.  We are talking about speaking out when we see injustice, even if it means others will be angered by our stand and our words.  We are talking about  paying attention to what is going on around us, and responding on the side of love. We are talking about being counter-cultural in our time, just as Jesus was counter-cultural in his time.

Jesus warned everyone listening that it would not easy to be his follower.  It would not be easy to do as God wants us to do.  It’s easier just to be human, to give into our normal human desires.  It’s easier to just do what everyone else is doing.   We even have sayings that tell us things like, “Don’t rock the boat,” and “You can’t fight City Hall.”  Well, sometimes boats need rocking, when they need to have their course changed.  And you can fight City Hall.  You have to rock the boat if it’s going in the wrong direction, and you have to fight City Hall when it isn’t taking care of it’s citizens.   

It’s not easy to be a Christian.  Oh, it’s easy enough to come to church and worship on Sunday mornings, and attend events, and give some money, and donate time and talents.  What’s hard is living differently from the expectations of the world around us.  What’s hard is to struggle with doing the right thing, especially when that right thing just seems counter-intuitive.  What’s hard is to be counter-cultural, to stand up against the tide and speak for those who have no voice or whose voices are discounted.   

For example, some of us struggle with the reality of privilege.  We struggle with trying to recognize when our whiteness, or gender, or sexual orientation, is gaining us some advantage over others who are not white or not male or not cis-gender or not straight.  The difficulty is that we can’t always tell when privilege is at work.  Usually someone else has to point it out to us.  I learned a lot about it when I was married to a Native American.  If we went into a government office, for example, the clerks almost always spoke to me, as if he wasn’t even there.  Even a trip to Walmart was different when I went by myself than when he was with me.  The worst case, though, was in a Disciples congregation in another state.  When we went together we were welcomed, and invited for coffee, and told to come back.  When he went back alone, they literally turned their backs on him.   That was a blatant case of racism, obviously, but it is also an example of privilege, of how my whiteness made a difference in how we were treated.

It’s hard to be an ally, because as a white, cis-gender, Christian woman I don’t have the right to speak for my sisters and brothers who are not white and cis-gender and Christian - a mistake way too many of us make. I want to, make no mistake.  I want to speak up for my friends who are persons of color, or Muslim, or Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and so on.  But my reality, my life experience is not theirs.  I cannot speak for them.  I do, however, have an obligation to support them in any way that I can.  And even just that can bring out those swords Jesus was talking about.   That can bring opposition even from within the Church, even within our own denomination, and in my case, it has brought anger and rejection from within my own family.  

My brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to follow him, to live as he lived, to speak against oppression and for justice. Jesus asks for nothing less than everything we are - our lives, our talents and gifts, our hearts, and our souls.   Let us go from this place re-dedicated to doing God’s work, and to following God’s commandments, to love God with all of our beings, and to love one another, as we also are loved.